German court rules against Berlin hostel at NKorea embassy

BERLIN (AP) — A German court on Tuesday dismissed a legal bid to prevent the closure of a hostel located on the grounds of the North Korean embassy in Berlin that was said to have been a significant source of foreign income for the East Asian country.

The ruling by a Berlin regional court was welcomed by lawyers for the family of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student who died shortly after being returned by North Korea to the U.S. in a vegetative state in 2017. His parents say their son was tortured by North Korea after being convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster and imprisoned for months.

Judges at the capital’s administrative court ruled that city authorities were justified in ordering the closure of the City Hostel Berlin, which was opened in 2007 next to the North Korean embassy and close to landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. The hostel offers beds for less than 13 euros ($14.30) a night in shared rooms and has in the past been popular with school groups visiting the capital.

City officials had argued that the rent the operators pay the embassy — estimated at 38,000 euros ($42,000) a month — breaches U.N. Security Council sanctions and European Union regulations intended to stop the flow of hard currency to North Korea.

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The hostel’s operators claimed they stopped paying rent to the embassy in April 2017, but the court noted that an EU directive from 2017 forbids any use of North Korean territory other than for diplomatic or consular purposes.

Judges said Berlin authorities in fact had no choice but to close the hostel as North Korea “represents a threat to world peace due to its nuclear weapons program.”

The court ruled that the verdict cannot be appealed, but lawyers for the hostel operator can challenge that decision.

Lothar Harings, a German lawyer representing the Warmbier family, said he hoped the ruling would send a signal for commercial entities operating on North Korean territory in other European cities.

“We and the Warmbiers will now demand that the ruling is implemented,” Harings told The Associated Press. “We want to hold the regime in North Korea to account for its actions, for the torture and murder of (the Warmbiers) son.”

In 2018, a U.S. federal judge held North Korea liable in Warmbier’s death and awarded more than $500 million in damages in the wrongful death suit filed by his parents. North Korea hadn’t responded to any of the allegations in court and there’s no practical mechanism to enforce the judgement.

“It’s hard for the Warmbiers to accept that diplomatic embassies are being used to earn money that flows to the regime in North Korea and thereby toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons,” said Harings.

Tom Schreiber, a lawmaker in the Berlin regional assembly, said it was important for Germany not to be complicit in the illicit acquisition of funds for North Korea, but acknowledged that the ruling might draw a sharp response from Pyongyang

“I expect North Korea will react to this,” he said.

Representatives for the hostel operator and the North Korean embassy couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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