The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in 2017 shortly after being released from North Korean detention, want North Korea to suffer financially for their son's death. They're on a mission to track down and seize the North Korean government's assets worldwide.
In an interview with VOA's Korean service this week, Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they have their eyes on North Korean activities in Eastern Europe.
"The North Koreans continue to run illegal operations out of their embassies in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia. These are illegal businesses, and we will work to close them down," Fred Warmbier said.
He added, "We anticipate that we would go and take a look at those situations and see if we could make a difference there. We just want to see what the laws are there and how people feel about the laws."
Fred Warmbier said the family is contemplating "creative" lawsuits against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister. Otto's mother, Cindy Warmbier, stressed, "There are so many attorneys around the world willing to work with us."
Illegal use of diplomatic compound
In its 2018 annual report, a U.N. panel of experts identified illegal uses of North Korean embassies worldwide. It is not clear whether any of those activities has been halted since the report was issued.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, local entities "Terra" and "Technologica" used the North Korean Embassy for multiple purposes, including rental for weddings and private events, according to the U.N. report.
It said that in Warsaw, Poland, at least nine companies, most of which involved media, real estate and medicine, leased space within the North Korean Embassy compound.
In Bucharest, Romania, two companies leased the North Korean Embassy and sublet the property to at least 27 other people and entities, the report said.
The panel that monitors compliance with the sanctions on North Korea said the leasing of North Korean Embassy property is in violation of U.N. Resolution 2321 and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Shutting down hostel in Germany
The Warmbier's latest effort is the closure of a hostel on the North Korean Embassy's premises in Berlin, Germany. In January, a Berlin regional court ruled that city authorities were justified in ordering the City Hostel Berlin's closure. The order follows years of pressure from Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who made several visits to Berlin.
"Cindy and I worked hard with them [the Berlin city government] to close this illegal business," said Fred Warmbier.
In December 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Fred and Cindy Warmbier were entitled to a $501 million payment from the North Korean government as compensation for the torture and death of their son Otto.
In May of this year, the court ordered the disclosure of information to the Warmbiers about $23 million in frozen North Korean assets at three U.S. banks. The protective order called on JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of New York Mellon to disclose relevant details.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea told VOA on Thursday, "There are truly two things that the North Korean regime cares about: its pocketbook and its international legitimacy. And the Warmbiers hit them really hard in both areas. They're going after the hard currency earning operations of the Kim regime, and this is one way of making a significant difference."
Joshua Stanton, an attorney in Washington who closely monitors the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, said the U.S. Treasury Department has not been aggressive in enforcing sanctions against North Korea since May of 2018. In an interview Wednesday with VOA, Stanton said U.S. President Donald Trump stopped most Treasury enforcement actions ahead of his first summit with Kim Jong Un. But Stanton said private litigants like the Warmbiers can take the initiative to seize the North Korean funds.
"To the extent that the Warmbiers are able to identify North Korean assets transiting through the United States, based on actions by the Treasury Department or the Justice Department to either freeze or forfeit North Korean assets, they can intervene and seize those assets in order to collect on the court judgments," Stanton said. Stanton helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016, and he does not represent the Warmbiers.
The Warmbiers told VOA they want to turn their "tragic situation" into "something positive" through lawsuits against North Korea.
"I believe you can change their behavior by enforcing the rule of law on Kim and his sister, and there are so many opportunities for this," Fred Warmbier said.
Otto Warmbier died at the age of 22, just days after being returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state after 17 months in captivity in the North. North Korea sentenced Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor, accusing him of an act of subversion on behalf of the U.S. government, allegedly for taking down a propaganda poster in a hotel.