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Otto Warmbier would be a New Yorker today.
The 27-year-old would be waking up this morning in Manhattan, a quiet Sunday off from his Wall Street investment job at the noted investment firm Guggenheim Securities, which bought the firm, Millstein investments, that gave Otto an internship the summer of 2016 and job lined up after his graduation from the University of Virginia.
Otto perhaps would be living in the Churchill Apartment building, along with similar other young professionals, on Second Avenue and 40th street, where a friend snapped a photo of him waiting on the building’s curb during the summer of 2015.
But the unforgiving regime of Kim Jong Un denied the young American a future when he was falsely arrested, imprisoned for a year and a half, and sent home to die, severely brain-damaged, unable to speak, see or hear, the result of his torture by his North Korean captors. He was taken off life support in a Cincinnati hospital five years ago today.
Otto Warmbier was 22 years old.
In death, Otto has become an international symbol of human rights and of the struggle for the North Korean people, and those seeking human dignity and freedom elsewhere. He was honored at the 2018 State of the Union when his parents, Cindy and Fred, sister Greta and brother Austin were given an emotional standing ovation by the packed House chamber in honor of Otto’s memory.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed the Otto Warmbier North Korea Censorship and Surveillance Act, sponsored by Senators Rob Portman R-Ohio., Sherrod Brown D-Ohio., and Chris Coons D-Del. which “provides $10 million annually for the next five years to counter North Korea’s repressive censorship and surveillance state, while also encouraging sanctions on those who enable this repressive information environment both in and outside of North Korea.”
“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 its myriad of other human rights abuses,” says Sen. Portman.
“Otto Warmbier’s treatment by North Korean authorities that ended in his death remains a powerful reminder of the brutality of Kim Jong Un’s regime,” says Sen. Brown. “This legislation reaffirms our commitment to combating North Korea’s human rights violations against its own people and others who have been held captive.”
But another honor has been in the works, three blocks from where Otto was pictured waiting outside on that hot Manhattan summer day.
“Otto Warmbier Way” is the proposal to name the street in front of the North Korean Mission to the United Nations on Second Avenue and 44th street, in front of 820 Second Avenue, where Kim Jong Un’s diplomats have their offices, just one block from the United Nations. The honorary street renaming, seen as a defiant, moral message to Kim’s diplomats and a compelling reminder of the regime’s harsh realities to the international community, has impressive bi-partisan support, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
“Mayor Adams wholeheartedly condemns the human rights abuses committed by North Korea and has nothing but sympathy for the loss the Warmbier family suffered when Otto was taken from them. If the City Council chooses a street for renaming in Otto’s name, the mayor would support those efforts,” the Mayor’s Press Secretary Fabien Levy told Fox News.
“Otto Warmbier Way” is also endorsed by: two former U.S. Secretaries of State, Mike Pompeo and John Kerry, Mayor Adams’ predecessor Bill de Blasio, three former United States Ambassadors to the United Nations, including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, two U.S. Senators who are members of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, two Korean American members of Congress, the current and past Manhattan Borough President, the district’s Congresswoman, New York States Assemblyman, as well as human rights activists and others. But it has yet to be voted on by the New York City Council, which is responsible for the honorary street renamings, despite first being proposed in 2019.
In a tweet on Thursday, Otto’s mother, Cindy, put the blame for the lack of action, despite the heavyweight support, squarely on one New York elected official.
Mrs. Warmbier tweeted: “There is a city council member in New York City who has obstructed our efforts to name street by North Korean UN Mission Otto Warmbier Way. Who can help us with this?”
She was responding to the naming of the Washington, D.C. street outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy “Jamal Khashoggi Way,’ after the Washington Post Columnist who was murdered inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul embassy, allegedly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has denied it.
In her tweet, Mrs. Warmbier was referring to New York City Council Member Keith Powers, a Democrat from Manhattan, whose district includes the North Korean U.N. mission location. He is the local official who would be responsible for introducing the street renaming bill, absent other City Council action. Although Council Member Powers expressed support for Otto’s human rights honor when it was first raised three years ago, his office has told Fox News in the past that the proposal was sitting in the council’s legal department.
The street renamings traditionally honor police officers and firefighters who have died in the line of duty, as well as members of the military who have given the ultimate sacrifice as well as local community activists and other local notables. But plenty of other names have made it to the street signs …some with no connection to the location… and have included rock and roll, rap and bee-bop music groups, foreign dignitaries, and Major League baseball players and beloved restaurant and bar owners, among others.
In 2018 the naming of a Brooklyn street “Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard,” after the Haitian revolutionary who led his nation to independence against France sparked controversy. Dessalines is blamed for ordering the massacre of up to 10,000 white French residents in 1804.
The current package of 79 names that was approved at the City Council meeting on June 16th, include the Beastie Boys (Beastie Boys Square,) the R & B vocal group The Force MD’s (The Force MD’s Way,) as well as signs honoring local communities such as “Ukrainian Way,” “Little Bangladesh Way,” and “Little Thailand Way.”
The official renaming of a Bronx street that was approved last December after former Albanian prime minister Fan Noli, “Fan Noli Way,” was briefly delayed earlier this year by a council member change. Noli served as Albania’s prime minister in 1924.
Last year 199 names were approved, including honoring the late media billionaire Sumner Redstone, the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, “Ibrahim al-Hamdi Way” for the former president of Yemen who was assassinated in 1977, a Napalese Mountain sherpa, U.S. Navy victims of Pearl Harbor, Tin Pan Alley songwriters from the early 1920’s, as well as famed New York Yankee Phil “Scooter” Rizutto.
“New York City should still use this opportunity to rename the street and thumb our nose at the North Korean dictatorship. Otto’s life could matter even more as a strong sign against totalitarianism,” says New York City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, who raised the issue and met with the Warmbiers in 2019, as did Council Member Powers.
Former Manhattan Borough President and current Democratic city council member, Gale Brewer noted that “Manhattanites –and all New Yorkers –have always cared about the larger world because so many of us came from elsewhere. So it’s personal for us to always seek justice on the global stage…and co-naming Second Avenue from 43rd to 44th Streets is one small way we can keep Otto’s memory alive.”
Council Member Powers’ office did not respond to a request for comment regarding Mrs. Warmbier’s tweet or the councilman’s current position on honoring the memory of Otto Warmbier.