The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died after being detained by North Korea, said they are pursuing legal measures and raising issues in countries around the world to hold the Kim Jong Un regime to account.

“There is a lot we can do to change [North Korean] behavior,” Fred Warmbier said. “There are laws they are breaking that are not being enforced.”

He confirmed that he and his wife were waiting for money from the sale of a North Korean ship held by US authorities, as damages for the death of their son. They have also taken three trips to Germany to pressure Berlin to close a youth hostel run on the North Korean embassy compound that generates money for heavily sanctioned Pyongyang.

Warmbier and his wife Cindy were speaking at the International Conference on Resolution for Legal Action by the Victims of North Korea’s Abduction and Detainment, held in Seoul on Friday. In addition to the two Americans, other speakers at the event included Japanese, South Koreans and Thais whose family members have been abducted by North Korea.

“There is no law in North Korea, but they have a presence in many countries and break the law in those countries,” Warmbier said. “Our mission is to hold North Korea responsible and recover their assets around the world.”

Stating that “demands on governments don’t work – laws do,” he made clear his preference for judicial means.

“If you force North Korea to engage from a legal standpoint they will engage with us,” he said. “They will not engage with us any other way.”

Cindy and Fred Warmbier. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

North Korea’s second-largest ship

The 580-foot, 17,601-ton North Korean bulk carrier Wise Honest, built in 1989, was seized by Indonesia in 2018 after being found carrying a US$3 million cargo of coal – a key North Korean product, the export of which is sanctioned.

According to the US Justice Department, the ship, which had been sailing with its tracking beacon switched off, had earlier been identified by US satellite. US authorities had also intercepted emails from its owner and operator in Pyongyang.

The Wise Honest was subsequently seized – judicially, not forcibly – by US authorities, who also found its operator had used US correspondent banks for financial transactions related to the vessel’s operations. The vessel was sold on September 12 this year, according to US publication Navy Times.

The vessel was ordered sold by US judges to compensate two families – the Warmbiers and the Kims – who had lost family members in North Korea.

In a high-profile case, Otto Warmbier died in June 2017, days after being released from North Korea in a semi-comatose state. The student, who had visited North Korea on a group tour in December 2015, had been imprisoned for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel.

The reason behind his fatal brain damage remains unknown. As it is consistent with asphyxiation, torture or a failed suicide attempt are both feasible causes, sources in Seoul suggest.

The brother and son of the Reverend Kim Dong-shik, a Korean-American missionary and activist, are the other plaintiffs. A range of evidence suggests that in 2000 Kim was forcefully renditioned from China to North Korea by Pyongyang operatives and subsequently died in a North Korean labor camp.

In both the Kim and Warmbier cases, US courts hold North Korea responsible.

The North Korean vessel is believed to have been sold for scrap for an unknown sum, but the buyer has not been revealed. According to the US Department of Justice, the captain was detained in Indonesia for improper documentation. It is unclear what happened to his crew members.

Fred Warmbier said he does not, as yet, know how much the vessel had sold for, but stated that money was not the prime reason for the claim.

“The important thing is that we took an asset from North Korea,” he said. “This was the second-largest cargo ship in their fleet. It’s the right thing to do – enforce the law against North Korea.”

His wife said that when they receive the money, the family are considering establishing an Otto Warmbier Foundation to assist other families of persons abducted by or detained in North Korea.

The North Korean bulk carrier M/V Wise Honest, which was seized by the United States. Photo: AFP/US Attorney’s Office

Taking the fight to Europe

The Warmbiers have also been advocating for the closure of a youth hostel that operates on the grounds of North Korea’s Berlin embassy. Fred Warmbier estimated the money the hostel earns for the regime to be 50,000-100,000 euros per month.

It is known that North Korean embassies are tasked with obtaining hard currency through various means. These means have included such illegal operations as currency counterfeiting and the drug trade, but the Berlin case is highly unusual.

According to German news reports, the government is having difficulty legally closing the hostel due to complications arising from the building’s diplomatic status.

Fred Warmbier alleged Pyongyang had a wide range of assets and operations across Europe, where North Korea has extensive diplomatic relations, and where Kim Jong Un, as well as his brother and sister, were educated at an exclusive Swiss school in their teens.

“Kim has billions in Swiss bank accounts and homes in Switzerland and nobody challenges them on this,” he said. “This takes place in democracies – Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland. We are going to challenge North Korea any way we can.”

A visit to the DMZ

Prior to his summit meetings with Kim, who he claims to have struck up a friendship with, US President Donald Trump had strongly supported the Warmbiers. While Cindy Warmbier admitted she did not fully agree with the president on his North Korean policy, she said: “Trump has been much more aggressive – he has given us a voice.”

She contrasted that with the advice she had formerly received from US State Department officials during the Barack Obama administration. “It was really hard in the beginning, we were told if we spoke up, Kim would take it out on Otto,” she said, adding that she now regrets following that advice. “We are not going to be quiet anymore.”

In Korea, according to local news reports, the Warmbiers sought a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made engaging North Korea a flagship policy, but were turned down. On Monday and Tuesday, Moon will be meeting the heads of all ASEAN states during a two-day summit with the Southeast Asian regional grouping in Korea’s southern city, Busan.

“If this administration is not giving you help, pressure needs to be applied,” Cindy Warmbier advised Korean conference goers. “You need to ask why Moon is not helping.”

Tens of thousands of South Koreans are believed to have been in North Korea since the Korean War, though it is not entirely clear if all were abducted or whether some defected. Many more South Koreans, along with a handful of Japanese and other nationals, have been abducted in the years since.

On Saturday, the Warmbiers are scheduled to visit the DMZ, from where they can see into North Korea, up-close.

“I am hoping to go to the DMZ to say, ‘I hate you.’ I want to look them in the eye,” said Cindy Warmbier. “We cannot give them a pass, we have to fight with all of our power.”

South Korean Soldiers at the Joint Security Area facing the North Korean side of the border. Photo: iStock
South Korean Soldiers at the Joint Security Area inside the DMZ, facing the North Korean side of the border. Photo: iStock