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Political pawn? N. Korea ordered to pay $501mn over US student’s death as Trump pushes new Kim talks

Political pawn? N. Korea ordered to pay $501mn over US student’s death as Trump pushes new Kim talks
A US judge has ordered North Korea to pay damages to the family of a student who died in the US after being released from North Korean custody, yet, behind the scenes, both sides seem to have bigger questions in mind.

Beryl Howell, the chief judge of the US District Court for Washington, DC, demanded North Korea pay the imposing sum on Monday, ostensibly as a consequence of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier having been tortured during his 17-month detention in a North Korean work camp in 2016, which allegedly resulted in his coma and eventual death.

It comes as little surprise that the judge’s order to hand over the money was packaged in all of the US' major political talking points against North Korea, considering that the court-proceedings directly coincide with a diplomatic drive by Donald Trump to lock-down a second meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong Un.

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"An American family, the Warmbiers, experienced North Korea's brutality first-hand when North Korea seized their son to use as a pawn in that totalitarian state's global shenanigans and face-off with the United States," Judge Howell told the court without a hint of irony, despite that just this June Trump himself emphasized how Warmbier's death helped to facilitate the first meeting between the world leaders. The President  continued to be less than candid this time around on his Twitter account:

It is somewhat inevitable that judge Howell's fiery words will miss their target alongside the court's default judgment, considering the fact that North Korea has very few, if any, assets which the US government could seize in order to enforce the payments, and that the Korean's themselves are rather unlikely to show up in court for an alternative punishment.

The court's Bombastic rhetoric aside, ramifications for the North are actually possible if the financial pressure was to be offset onto something more pressing, for instance, nuclear weapons discussions. Ironically, this means that Warmbier will very directly be used as a pawn in a global power face off – only, not just by the Koreans. North Korea’s position on the question has changed little from a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) statement released February, which accuses “the Trump clan” of “intentionally stoking up the anti-DPRK smear campaign” over Warmbier’s death, “tarnishing” North Korea’s “international image and finding an excuse for intensifying the international pressure campaign"; in other words, the US is just as ready to use the Warmbier's family tragedy for political ends.

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The actual number named in the lawsuit, according to the judge, is payment due for North Korea’s liability in “the torture, hostage-taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier,” as well as the related emotional injuries and costs to his mother and father. Despite the possible validity of these claims, the Coroner’s office in Warmbier’s home-state of Ohio claimed the body showed no clear signs of having been tortured, the doctor even said that his body and skin were in “excellent condition” given that he had been bedridden in a coma since being sent home from Korea. To complicate matters, Otto’s parents also denied an autopsy, which puts the accounting behind the $501,134,683.80 in punitive damages into serious question.

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The wrongful death claim in itself has more than a few untied ends the court seemed ok with safety-pinning together. The experts assigned to determine the cause of death could only come up with the unhelpfully general diagnosis of lack of oxygen. With so little information to work with, Asthma is as likely a culprit as head trauma, particularly given that a high enough level of trauma to halt breathing would likely be visible. The North Korean side claims that Warmbier had contracted botulism or had a reaction to a sleeping pill. Predictably, they vehemently deny employing torture...However, without even looking into these arguments, there is a more obvious problem with the case from the get-go: namely, that a wrongful death case could be decided so conclusively despite the fact that no autopsy was conducted to confirm the cause of death in the first place.

The unfortunate fact is that, regardless of the details of Warmbier's case, both sides are looking at the situation as an opportunity to engage in diplomacy-by-other-means: the US gunning for continued denuclearization talks, and North Korea looking to make a deal on alleviating sanctions. Yet, both sides faithfully pretend to adhere to the issue at hand, the tragic death of a young man, accusing the other of having sneaky politically oriented motivations… well, with the exception of Trump, who sometimes doesn’t seem to be playing the same game of diplomacy as those around him:

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, was arrested in North Korea for “having committed hostility toward [North Korea] on a mission assigned by an American organization”, according to the KCNA, by stealing a political banner from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The Koreans believe Warmbier was punished fairly given that the stolen banner was intended to be used in propaganda efforts against their country. 

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