U.S. House passes legislation in Otto Warmbier’s name. Here’s what it does

The Wyoming High School graduate died after 17 months in North Korean captivity. He would have been 27 next week.
Otto Warmbier's parents share insight on North Korea Surveillance Act
Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 8:30 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation named in honor of Otto Warmbier that takes aim at North Korea’s regime of censorship and surveillance.

It comes two days after North Korea executed two teenagers for the crime of watching and distributing South Korean movies, according to a Fox News report citing Radio Free Asia.

The act bearing Otto’s name was included in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, a compromise version of a Senate bill passed in June. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week.

It authorizes $10 million annually over the next five years for the Biden Administration, in general terms, to develop a strategy “on combating North Korea’s repressive information environment.”

The funds are specifically appropriated to the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent agency considered an arm of U.S. diplomacy that broadcasts news and information around the world “in support of freedom and democracy.”

USAGM supervises Voice of America and Office of Cuba Broadcasting as well as Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and more. It also fights internet censorship in China, North Korea, Russia and other countries.

A 2018 typhoon caused extensive damage to 15 USAGM broadcast antennas in Asia, resulting in reduced programming to North Korea. So far, five of the antennas are rebuilt. The appropriation will restore the remaining 10.

It also targets the following purposes (quoted in full from the legislation text:)

  • To promote the development of internet freedom tools, technologies, and new approaches, including both digital and non-digital means of information sharing related to North Korea;
  • To explore public-private partnerships to counter North Korea’s repressive censorship and surveillance state; and
  • To develop new means to protect the privacy and identity of individuals receiving media from the United States Agency for Global Media and other outside media outlets from within North Korea.

“Otto Warmbier was the best of America, the Midwest, and Cincinnati,” said U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “This legislation will help ensure that his memory lives on and that the brutal regime responsible for his unjust death is held accountable for this and it’s myriad of other human rights abuses. With the five year anniversary of Otto’s unjust death earlier this year, I look forward to this legislation becoming law very soon.”

REMEMBERED | Ohio hometown says goodbye to Otto Warmbier

The legislation passed out of the U.S. House four days before Otto’s 27th birthday. The late Wyoming High School graduate died on June 19, 2017 after 17 months in North Korean captivity.

Otto entered North Korea eighteen months prior as part of a guided tour. He was waiting for his departing flight on Jan. 2, 2016 at Pyongyang International Airport when he was arrested on accusations that he had tried to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. The North Korean government convicted and sentenced him in March to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor.

Not long into his sentence, Otto suffered a severe neurological injury and fell into a coma. The cause remains unknown. North Korean authorities ascribed it to botulism and a sleeping pill when they disclosed the coma in June 2017, days before he was freed.

Otto never awoke. He died at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center six days after his return to the U.S. The coroner’s report found he died from an unknown injury that caused oxygen deprivation to the brain.

The incident provoked a strong public response, including trenchant criticism of the Obama Administration for its perceived failure to secure Otto’s release. U.S. Senator John McCain called Otto’s death a “murder,” while U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley described it as a “singular case” that “touches the American heart like no other.”

The U.S. Department of State relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism later that year. A U.S. government ban on travel to North Korea issued a month after Otto’s death remains in effect today.

MORE | Warmbiers file motion to get $501M owed to them by N. Korea

President Donald Trump invoked Otto’s death several times during his presidency with the outspoken support from Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents. The Warmbiers were particularly supportive of a Trump-brokered summit between the nations held in 2018. But a small rift formed at the summit’s second installment the following year, when Trump said he took North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “at his word” when he said he didn’t know about Otto’s treatment.

“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuse or lavish praise can change that,” the Warmbiers said.

A U.S. federal district court judge in December 2018 handed down a default judgement in the Warmbiers’ suit accusing North Korea of torture and murder in Otto’s death. The North Korean government, which did not defend the case, was ordered to pay $501 million in damages.

North Korea has so far declined to pay, and there’s no real mechanism that could compel it to. Nonetheless, the Warmbiers are entitled to file for asset seizures of North Korean property, such as a cargo ship seized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2019 that was then sold to compensate them. Similarly, in January 2022, a federal judge in New York ordered $240,000 seized from a North Korean bank paid to the Warmbiers.

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