Otto Warmbier would have been 26 years old Saturday.
Otto was a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Ohio when he was falsely arrested in North Korea in 2016, while on an youth educational tour of the country. He was imprisoned for just over 18 months and in that time officials say he was tortured, left in a vegetative state with severe brain damage.
He died in a Cincinnati hospital in June 2017, just days after he arrived back home.
In the ensuing years since their son’s death, Otto’s parents, Cindy and Fred, have been waging a global legal battle against Kim’s regime for what happened to their son, and to expose its brutal human rights violations.
In 2018 a federal judge found that the North Korean government was “legally and morally” responsible for Otto’s death, and awarded the family $500 million in damages.
“We are committed to holding North Korea accountable for the death of our son Otto,” the Warmbiers said, “and will work tirelessly to seize North Korean assets wherever they may be found.”
Though it will likely be difficult to recover the bulk of Pyongyang’s assets, the Warmbiers have taken their legal quest wherever they can in hopes of nailing Kim’s regime.
Earlier this year a German court ordered a North Korean-owned hostel in Berlin to close, saying that the five-story, 109-room hotel was an illegal money maker for Kim’s regime. Then U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell joined the Warmbiers to press the government to shut the hostel’s doors, denying the North Korean government an estimated $500,000 a year in illicit revenue. The hostel’s website acknowledges the closure, citing “the embargo against our landlord.”
A North Korean tanker ship that authorities said was illegally transporting coal from North Korea was seized by the U.S. Navy last year as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang. The ship, the “Wise Honest,” was eventually sold at a sealed auction.
Otto’s father Fred spoke virtually to a Tokyo symposium on North Korean abductions for foreign citizens.
“I look forward to working with the Biden administration,” Fred Warmbier told Japanese media outlet NHK on Saturday, his son’s birthday. “This administration will make a point of standing up to the horrendous human rights violations in North Korea.”
President Trump, who has made outreach to Kim Jong Un part of his administration’s foreign policy strategy, has also reached out to Otto’s family. He is said to have “a deep affection” for the Warmbiers and has praised them as “a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength.”
In 2018, Otto’s parents, along with his brother and sister Austin and Greta, were the president’s guests at the State of the Union, where they were given an emotional standing ovation.
Trump said “this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor,” and noted that he was sent home “horribly injured and on the verge of death.” He said the Warmbiers are “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world and your strength truly inspires us all.”
Last year the president hosted a private dinner for the Warmbier family, as well as some of Otto’s friends, at the White House.
On Otto’s birthday, his supporters say they will continue to raise the truth and expose the North Korean regime, all in the name of a young man from the Midwest who they say represented American values in pointed contrast to the dictatorship that took his life.
Ben Evansky contributed to this report.