Court Hears Tale of American Tortured in North Korea

WASHINGTON (CN) – The first time Otto Warmbier’s family saw him after he returned to the United States following 18 months as a North Korean hostage, he was strapped to a gurney on a plane, thrashing and making a “guttural howling” sound.

Otto’s mother and sister ran from the plane, while his father and younger brother stayed behind. The man on the gurney was not the high school prom king and salutatorian they had raised and grown up with. 

Cynthia Warmbier, his mother, said Wednesday his eyes reminded her of pictures she had seen of Holocaust victims.  

Otto Warmbier. (Photo via LinkedIn)

“We were all, I think, scared of Otto,” she said in Washington, D.C., federal court on Wednesday. “He was a monster. Our beautiful boy, turned into this monster.” 

During a hearing that lasted more than four hours on Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell heard testimony from members of Warmbier’s family about his life and their experience since his death in June 2017 from severe brain damage he suffered in North Korean custody. Two North Korea experts also testified about the country’s typical treatment of people it holds in custody. 

Cynthia and Fred Warmbier, the former hostage’s parents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against North Korea in April, seeking to recover damages for his death. 

North Korea has not entered an appearance in the case and the Warmbiers have filed for default judgment, setting up Wednesday’s evidentiary hearing.  North Korea has publicly said Warmbier contracted botulism, but doctors have disputed that diagnosis.

Benjamin Hatch, an attorney with the firm McGuire Woods who represents the family, said doctors believe that in order to suffer the type of brain damage Warmbier did, something would have needed to stop blood flow to his brain for between five and 20 minutes. 

Warmbier’s parents, as well as his brother Austin and sister Greta, described him as a warm, caring person who was part of a loving family and had many friends. 

“I had a superhero for a big brother,” Austin Warmbier said from the witness stand at Wednesday’s hearing. 

About 20 family members were in the gallery of the second-floor courtroom, joined by roughly 10 of Warmbier’s friends from the University of Virginia and a handful of high school and family friends. They cried throughout the hearing. 

North Korean authorities took the then-21-year-old Warmbier captive on Jan. 2, 2016, when he was preparing to leave the country with his tour group. He embarked on the tour while traveling in Asia ahead of a study-abroad program in Hong Kong. 

Fred Warmbier told Judge Howell on Wednesday he first knew something was wrong when his son did not call home the day his tour group was to arrive back in China. The Warmbiers eventually got word from the tour company that their son had been detained. The group insisted there was nothing to worry about and that the company’s president was in North Korea with their son.

That changed just days later, when the tour company told the family its president was back in China and that Warmbier’s situation was out of their control. His father testified Wednesday he was “terrified” when he heard the news. 

The State Department got in touch with the Warmbiers shortly after, and on Jan. 22, North Korea announced Otto had been arrested for crimes against the state. 

Even after the country publicly acknowledged it had taken a U.S. citizen, the State Department cautioned the Warmbiers against saying anything publicly, especially anything that could be seen as a slight against the reclusive regime. 

But that proved difficult as time went on and Warmbier’s plight gained more public attention. His mother testified she started driving to grocery stores in other towns and avoiding school functions so as to dodge the questions of well-meaning, but overly inquisitive, neighbors. 

On Feb. 18, 2016, in response to a missile test earlier in the month, the U.S. slapped additional sanctions on North Korea. Whatever the response to the sanctions among the foreign policy community, Cynthia Warmbier said her first thought after hearing of the new measures was that North Korea was going to kill her son.

Eleven days later, Warmbier appeared in a televised press conference in North Korea in which he confessed to stealing a poster from a forbidden part of the hotel where his tour group was staying. In the confession, which two North Korean experts testified Wednesday was likely coerced, he said he took the poster as part of a mission for a Cincinnati church North Koreans say the U.S. government uses to attack the regime. 

Two weeks later, in March 2016, North Korea sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. 

David Hawk, one of the North Korea experts who testified, called the trial against Warmbier an “old-fashioned, Stalinist show trial.” He noted the confession was “surely” forced and that the American captive likely endured rounds of torture during his 18-month detention. Hawk said the North Koreans typically torture prisoners by tying them to the bars of their cell with their toes just off the floor or forcing them to squat with an iron bar behind their legs, cutting off blood flow. 

Earlier in the hearing, Hatch said the North Koreans also likely used pliers to rearrange Warmbier’s once-straight teeth and that a scar on his foot was consistent with the practice of placing electrodes in prisoners’ bodies and administering repeated electric shocks. 

The Warmbiers waited for months after the trial, talking regularly with State Department officials who said the North Koreans likely wanted something for their son and that they were awaiting the country’s demands. 

Fred Warmbier said he and his wife would wait up at night hoping for a phone call, because they had been told the North Koreans typically call at night in the United States due to the time difference. His wife said she kept trying to put herself in her son’s state of mind, looking up the weather and time in North Korea to feel connected to him.

One night in June 2017, a call did come, though not the one the Warmbiers were hoping for. On the other end was Joseph Yun, then the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, who told Fred Warmbier that his son was in a coma. The Warmbiers were later told he had been in a coma since 2016. 

Shortly after this news, North Korea agreed to release the student, setting up the Warmbiers’ encounter with him on the tarmac in Cincinnati. After Warmbier, now blind and deaf, was carried from the plane, his mother rode in an ambulance with him to the hospital, repeating positive messages to him all the way.

She said she stayed with him in the hospital nearly constantly after he arrived, relieved occasionally by her children and husband. She said Austin Warmbier put sunglasses on his brother while he was in his hospital bed, an effort to lighten the mood that came with the added benefit of hiding his eyes.

Cynthia Warmbier said she knew her son would never recover as soon as she saw him on the plane and doctors eventually confirmed her fears in a meeting with the family. The Warmbiers as a result decided to stop feeding and breathing assistance for him.  

The 22-year-old Warmbier died on June 19, 2017.

“I miss Otto,” Fred Warmbier said Wednesday. “I’m going to be buried next to Otto and that’s a good thing.” 

The Warmbiers detailed the life milestones they will miss as a result of their son’s death, including birthdays, weddings, and the birth of grandchildren.

“I used to think I was the luckiest person in the world, and then I thought I was the most cursed person in the world,” Cynthia Warmbier said. 

The next step in the case is for Judge Howell to determine an amount for damages, at which point the Warmbiers will be able to attempt to collect money from the regime. 

But at the end of the hearing, Howell said she believes the testimony that came out in her courtroom will be vital for the world to hear on its own merits. 

Throughout the hearing, the Warmbiers spoke of the case as bringing them closure and as a method of holding North Korea responsible for its actions. 

“We’re here because we don’t fear North Korea anymore,” Warmbier’s father said in court. “They did the worst they can do. They’re cowards.” 

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