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North Korea ordered to pay $500 million in Otto Warmbier's death

The Warmbier Family

(CBSNews) -- A federal judge on Monday ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after being released from that country. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington ruled that North Korea should pay damages to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of the University of Virginia student.

Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he was returned to the U.S. in a coma, showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.

The judgment is largely a symbolic victory for now, since there is no mechanism to force North Korea to pay.

When asked for comment by CBS News, the State Department pointed to the partial government shutdown, saying, "Due to the lapse in appropriations, the State Department Press Office is operating on a reduced status. Communications with the media will be limited to events and issues involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, or those determined to be essential to national security.‎"

Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were thankful that that the court found the government of Kim Jong Un "legally and morally" responsible for their son's death.

"We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him," they said in a joint statement. "Today's thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey."

The 22-page lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody. His family said when he arrived in North Korea, he was a "physically active and healthy young man."

When his parents boarded a plane to greet him upon arrival in the U.S., they were "stunned to see his condition," according to court documents.

The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family's attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.

A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, likely from a loss of blood flow to the brain for 5-20 minutes.

The complaint also said Warmbier, who was from a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, was pressured to make a televised confession and then convicted of subversion after a one-hour trial. He was denied communication with his family. In early June 2017, Warmbier's parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency denied that Warmbier had been mistreated in custody and called his death a "mystery."

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