FAHLBERG: Trump must address Warmbier lawsuit during diplomatic summit

President Trump must demand North Korean recognition of Otto Warmbier’s murder and the release of remaining American detainees as a precondition to peace talks

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Meeting with a leader who continues to deny the intentional murder of Warmbier sends the signal that the United States both excuses Kim’s human rights violations and legitimizes his authoritarian rule.

Courtesy KYODO Kyodo / Reuters | X01481

In a 22-page lawsuit, Otto Warmbier’s parents recently expressed their demand for both compensatory and punitive damages from North Korea for its “torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing” of their son. Though it is difficult under U.S. law for private citizens to sue foreign nations, President Donald Trump’s designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism this past November legitimizes the Warmbiers’ lawsuit. While it is unlikely that North Korea will recognize the legal action, it is possible for the Warmbiers to receive compensation through the Justice Department’s U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. Despite the Warmbiers’ continuous fight for justice, Trump has failed to comment on whether he will address Warmbier’s death at all during his upcoming diplomatic summit with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. However, failing to do so would disgrace Warmbier’s memory and dishonor American values.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently commented, “Although this is a private legal action to which the United States government is not a party, Americans remain committed to honoring Otto’s memory, and we will not forget the suffering of his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier.” The White House’s half-hearted commitment to demanding justice for North Korea’s murder of Warmbier is disappointing to say the least. Merely expressing support for the Warmbiers’ emotional distress is not enough. In order to truly “[honor] Otto’s memory,” Trump must demand North Korea’s recognition of his murder during his peace talks with Kim. 

A third-year economics major at the University, Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by a North Korean “kangaroo court” after “confessing” to the crime of tearing down a North Korean propaganda poster. The Warmbiers hold that this forced confession was simply a “façade of legitimacy to their lawless hostage taking of Otto.” To this day, North Korean authorities allege that his brain damage was caused by botulism and a sleeping pill, neither of which serve as sufficient medical explanations for his death. After finally arriving to the U.S. in a comatose condition, Otto Warmbier tragically passed away June 19, 2017. 

The Warmbiers’ statement includes vivid descriptions of Otto’s condition after being held captive in North Korea for 17 months. Not only was Otto discovered to be blind and deaf upon arriving to the states, he also “had a shaved head, a feeding tube coming out of his nose, was jerking violently and howling, and was completely unresponsive to any of their efforts to comfort him.” While there was a noticeable scar on his left foot and a clear misalignment of his teeth, his vegetative state and long detention period suggest that North Korean authorities likely inflicted other torture methods that did not leave visible signs on his body. 

Despite Wambier’s fatal experience in the DPRK, Trump has said that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.” While Kim has publicly made strides to denuclearize and make peace with South Korea, his proven record for violating international agreements suggests that this “progress” will likely be temporary. On the one hand, meeting with Kim may be beneficial if he follows through with his pledge to denuclearize and end the country’s human rights abuses. On the other hand, meeting with a leader who continues to deny the intentional murder of Warmbier sends the signal that the United States both excuses Kim’s human rights violations and legitimizes his authoritarian rule. This unfortunate reality indicates that perhaps it isn’t the right time for a diplomatic summit between an authoritarian despot and the leader of the free world.

Trump has held that the main goal for peace talks will be the discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program. While denuclearization of the region is of the utmost importance, Trump must also orient the discussion around the country’s inhumane treatment toward international visitors and its own citizens. In addition to the lack of comment on Warmbier’s death, it is particularly disconcerting that Trump has yet to call for the release of the three remaining American detainees — Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul — as a precondition to his talks with Kim. Casting aside human lives as a secondary concern to denuclearization raises questions about the Trump administration’s commitments to freedom and justice. Standing up for American victims of this regime should be the top priority of any peace negotiation.

While we can only hope that North Korea will one day close its political prisons, create a multi-party system and expand access to a free media — those demands do not currently seem to be within the realm of possibility. If Trump is to proceed with peace talks, he must first demand justice for the murder of Warmbier and North Korea’s current detainment of American citizens lest the country continue to engage in such behavior in the future.

Audrey Fahlberg is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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