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Warmbier Family Still Working To Make North Korea Pay For Son's Death

Fred Warmbier, speaking publicly about his son Otto, is wearing the same jacket his son had on when confessing to stealing a propaganda poster in North Korea.

Nearly four years after his son's death at the hands of North Korea, a Cincinnati man continues to press the brutal regime to pay for it.

Businessman Fred Warmbier and his wife Cindy are determined to collect what a U.S. District Court said they should - $501 million - for the torture and death of their son Otto in 2017 after he allegedly stole a propaganda poster in North Korea.

North Korea has refused to pay, so the Warmbiers are hitting the regime where it hurts, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, the Washington-based executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea(HRNK).

"There are two vulnerabilities," he says. "One is the pocketbook. The other one is legitimacy."

In 2020, the Warmbiers helped close an illegal hostel on the grounds of the North Koreanembassy in Germany.

Lawyer Lothar Harings represented the Warmbiers in the German case and told the AP then, "We and the Warmbiers will now demand that the ruling is implemented. We want to hold the regime in North Korea to account for its actions, for the torture and murder of [the Warmbiers'] son."

Harings went on to say, "It's hard for the Warmbiers to accept that diplomatic embassies are being used to earn money that flows to the regime in North Korea and thereby toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons."

The Warmbiers told the VOA last summer attorneys are lining up all over the world to help them.

But it's one thing to go after a youth hostel on the grounds of the North Korean Embassy in Germany and another to siphon off a real money source.

Scarlatiou says the U.S. government hasn't been enforcing sanctions so it falls to private individuals to go after the money. He suggest the Warmbiers keep doing what they are doing and prepare for a bigger hit.

"I'm talking basically arms exports and other types of illicit exports that continue to boost the regime," he says.

In the meantime, Fred and Cindy have identified four other places where North Korea is allegedly breaking the law: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia. In the first three, North Korea is accused of leasing and subleasing space at their embassies for money. (The UN says that's not allowed.) Scarlatoiu says North Korea is illegally exporting large numbers of workers to Russia and other countries then confiscating their pay.

Scarlatoiu says the people who work at the North Korean embassies are required to procure their funding locally. "And in many cases they do this by leasing part of the embassy buildings being engaged in illicit activities."

North Korea also holds millions in frozen assets in three U.S. banks. In May 2020, the court ordered J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of New York Mellon to disclose relevant details about the $23 million it holds.

Scarlatoiu makes it clear he works for an NGO, and doesn't speak for the government or the Warmbiers.

Fred Warmbier didn't return calls to WVXU in time for this story.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.