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Otto Warmbier's family awarded $240k in seized North Korean assets

The American student was imprisoned in North Korea and returned to the U.S. in a coma. After he died, his brain showed signs of severe abuse.

A federal judge in New York this month ordered that over $240,000 in seized North Korean bank assets be paid to the family of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died in 2017 after imprisonment in North Korea.

Judge Lawrence E. Kahn said that while a 2018 judgement by a D.C. federal court found North Korea liable to pay the Warmbier family over $500 million, a much smaller seizure of $240,000 in seized assets from the Kwangson Banking Corporation, which is connected to the North Korean government, was identified in March 2021.

On Jan. 13, the judge ordered final transfer of the funds to the family within 10 days, ending one part of a long legal battle by Otto Warmbier's parents, Cindy and Fred Warmbier, who originally sought over $1 billion in damages.

Otto Warmbier, 22, stole a propaganda banner from a hotel while visiting Pyongyang in January 2016 and was arrested and tried for committing a hostile act against the government. After an hour-long trial, the student was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

The University of Virginia student was returned to the U.S. in 2017 in a coma.

Warmbier's family said then: "When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands."

"He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace," they said. "He was home and we believe he could sense that."

Cindy and Fred Warmbier, parents of Otto Warmbier, who died after being held prisoner in North Korea, participate in a press conference on Dec. 18, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Cindy and Fred Warmbier, parents of Otto Warmbier, who died after being held prisoner in North Korea, participate in a press conference on Dec. 18, 2019 in Washington, DC.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

An MRI found extensive brain damage and signs that his brain had been starved of oxygen at some point in the past, but with no signs of botulism — which North Korea blamed for his death — or bone fractures that might indicate severe physical torture.

Warmbier died shortly after his return.

In March 2019, after former President Donald Trump said North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was not responsible for the student's death, Warmbier's family spoke out, saying Kim and "his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto."

"Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that," they said then.