Otto Warmbier’s Parents Sue North Korea, But Can They Win?

It won't be easy.

It was more than two years ago when news of theimprisonment of Otto F. Warmbier in North Korea for “perpetrating a hostile act.” Last June, he returned to the U.S. in a coma and died soon after. This week, his parents sued North Korea. This is not the first time U.S. citizens have sued a country, but there are some uncertainties on whether they will win.

Fred and Cynthia Warmbier filed the lawsuit against North Korea in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as reported by The Washington Post Thursday. The lawsuit alleges that the communist country tortured Otto Warmbier, which led to his death.

This is not the first lawsuit filed by U.S. citizens against North Korea. In 2008, surviving crew members of the USS Pueblo — a Navy spy ship captured by the country in 1968 — sued and won. The judge awarded the men $65 million, but North Korea never responded to the lawsuit. To prevent further lawsuits against the communist country, President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in October 2008. Last November, President Donald Trump re-added the nation to the terror list, which allowed for lawsuits to be filed once again. USS Pueblo crew members and relative filed another lawsuit against North Korea in February and seeks an award of $600 million.

Although U.S. citizens can win judgments against nations, as the case with the crew members of the USS Pueblo, that doesn’t mean they will actually receive the monetary amount. There has been an instance where an individual did receive funds, but the U.S. government had to get involved.

In 2002, Terry Anderson won a judgment of $26 million against Iran for his abduction in Beirut by Hezbollah militants in 1985. Iran was recognized as funding the activities of the extremist group. As explained by Stephen Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas, in a 2016 NPR interview, at the time Anderson won his lawsuit, the U.S. government had seized Iranian assets, which the courts were able to access for Anderson’s settlement.

It’s an interesting period of time for U.S. and North Korea relations. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un stepped foot in South Korea for the first time on Thursday. He plans to meet with President Trump in the coming months. Whether his lawsuit by the Warmbier family will raise any issues between the U.S. and North Korea remains to be seen.

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