SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The parents of former U.S. hostage Otto Warmbier, who died after being released from North Korea in a coma in 2017, are seeking to find and shut down illicit North Korean business assets around the world, to hold its government accountable for human rights abuses.
In a news conference in Seoul on Friday, Fred and Cindy Warmbier called for the Trump administration to raise North Korea’s human rights problems as it engages in negotiations to defuse the country’s nuclear threat.
“My mission would be to hold North Korea responsible, to recover and discover their assets around the world,” said Fred Warmbier, who was invited to a forum hosted by a Seoul-based group representing families of South Koreans abducted by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War.
“We feel that if you force North Korea to engage the world in a legal standpoint, then they will have to ultimately have a dialogue. They are not going to come and have a dialogue with us any other way,” he said.
The Warmbiers say their college student son, Otto, was tortured by North Korea after being convicted in 2016 of trying to steal a propaganda poster and imprisoned for months.
The 22-year-old suffered severe brain damage and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state in June 2017.
The North denied that it tortured the University of Virginia student and called itself the “biggest victim” in his death, accusing Washington and Seoul of orchestrating a smear campaign.
In December last year, a U.S. federal judge ordered North Korea pay more than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by the Warmbiers, who are unlikely to collect on the judgment.
The Warmbiers have been pushing legal action seeking to close a hostel operated on the grounds of the North Korean Embassy in Berlin and plan to go after other hostels the country operates in Europe, to pressure governments to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang.
“We cannot give up; we can’t give them a pass. We have to fight with all of our power,” Cindy Warmbier said.
She expressed hope that the Trump administration would use its diplomatic opening with Pyongyang to address the North’s human rights issues.
During the earlier part of his presidency, President Trump strongly criticized North Korea over its dismal human rights record, inviting the Warmbiers to his State of the Union address last year where he lashed out at the “depraved character” of the government led by third-generation leader Kim Jong-un.
But Trump then began playing down the severity of North Korea’s human rights record and showering Kim with praise as they engaged in nuclear summitry, which has led to three meetings but failed to produce agreements on the North’s nuclear disarmament.
After his second summit with Kim in Vietnam in February, Trump said he takes Kim “at his word” that Kim was unaware of the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier while he was imprisoned there.