Warmbier Family Sues North Korea

Apr 27, 2018

Late Thursday, the family of former UVA student Otto Warmbier sued North Korea in U.S. District Court – charging that country with taking their son hostage, torturing and killing him. 

Former UVA student Otto Warmbier
Credit Associated Press

In December of 1988 a PanAm flight en route from London to New York exploded.  

BBC News excerpt: “In a few short, violent moments, 270 people died.  Eleven of the victims were killed on the ground in Lockerbie when debris from PanAm 103 rained down on their streets and homes."

An investigation would lead to intelligence agents from Libya – one of them eventually convicted of planting a bomb on board.  Then President Clinton was outraged and called for a law that would allow victims of terrorism, perpetrated by designated countries, to sue for damages. Paul Stephan is a professor of international law at the University of Virginia.

“There is a fund that the United States established to pay out judgments," he explains. "One of the ironies of all this is those countries never pay anything.The United States and in some sense the U.S. taxpayer end up funding these judgments.”

The law led presidents to designate Libya, Iran, Korea and Cuba, prompting suits that have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There are lots of outstanding claims against Cuba – confiscation of property, people who were shot down.  They won at least seven and maybe eight figures, and it’s been funded by the United States,” Stephan says.

But in the case of Otto Warmbier, Stephan thinks it’s unlikely the family is suing for financial gain.

“Whenever you have a claim based on terrorism there is usually many motives.  In this particular case it’s very hard to believe the parents are in it for the money.  They probably want to keep this issue alive, and the lawsuit is just one way to do it.”

The Warmbiers' 22-page complaint, drafted by Richmond-based McGuire Woods, comes as President Trump prepares for a possible meeting with North Korea’s President.  Ironically, it was Trump who designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism a few months after Warmbier’s death.