The North Korean mission to the United Nations is located in a Manhattan office building at 820 Second Avenue, just one block from the U.N. Now, there are growing calls to change the building’s address to: 820 “Otto Warmbier Way.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s backing for the honorary street name has prompted an outpouring of bipartisan support from more public officials and others, who say renaming the street after Warmbier will remind the world of the brutality of Kim’s human rights abuses and pay tribute to the young American who fell victim to the regime four years ago today.
“Manhattanites – and all New Yorkers – have always cared about the larger world because so many of us came from elsewhere,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “So it’s personal for us to always seek justice on the global stage. The Kim Jong Un regime’s torture of Otto Warmbier should never be forgotten, and co-naming Second Avenue from 43rd to 44th streets is one small way we can keep Otto’s memory alive.”
Otto was a 22-year-old University of Virginia student on an educational tour of North Korea when he was falsely arrested, tortured and sent home to Cincinnati severely brain-damaged and unable to speak or hear. He died of his injuries on June 19, 2017. Had he lived, he would be a New Yorker by now. He was set to intern at the financial firm Millstein and Company when he was grabbed, and planned to move to Manhattan after graduation to work on Wall Street.
“We are a symbol of human rights to the whole world, and we have confronted in this city dictators and tyrants historically, this is a place that has really led the international effort against oppression,” de Blasio told a City Hall news conference.
“The fact that an American lost his life, there is something that we need to remember and we need to honor his family and we need to speak out against the oppression that the North Korean people go through every single day,” the mayor said.
The prominent officials supporting “Otto Warmbier Way” so far include two former U.S. secretaries of State, three former United States ambassadors to the United Nations, an expanding number of New York City elected officials, as well as members of Congress and U.S. senators.
“I fully support the proposal to commemorate the life of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier by renaming this street after him,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Kaine, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that deals with human rights issues, said that a street sign bearing Otto’s name would be a visible symbol to the North Korean diplomats of the true reality of Kim’s regime.
“This would remind the North Korean regime every day that will hold it accountable for the horrific murder of Otto and serve as a lasting tribute to his legacy; we will not forget him in the United States,” Kaine said. “As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I will continue to push back on the unjust arrest, oppression, and imprisonment of American citizens abroad.”
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a fellow member of the Foreign Relations Committee and its human rights subcommittee, also said the street sign would be a pointed message about American values to the U.N. diplomats.
“Kim Jung Un’s detainment and torture of Otto Warmbier must not be forgotten or brushed aside,” Van Hollen told Fox News.
“Naming the street in front of the North Korean Mission to the United Nations after Otto Warmbier is a fitting message to their regime – and will serve as a clear reminder of where our nation stands.”
Former U.N. ambassador and national security adviser John Bolton, who negotiated with the North Koreans as the U.S. Assistant for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, has joined two of his fellow former U.N. ambassadors in their support.
“North Korea’s murder of Otto Warmbier was a tragedy for the Warmbier family and our country. It revealed exactly what kind of criminals rule in Pyongyang. America should never forget Otto,” he said.
The honorary street naming was first proposed at the City Council in 2019 by Councilman Joe Borelli. Among those who have previously announced their support are former Secretaries of State John Kerry, Mike Pompeo, former U.N. Ambassadors Bill Richardson and Kelly Craft and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents the district.
New York State Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, who also represents the district, has added his name for the street sign.
“As New Yorkers we have a responsibility to call out injustices and human rights abuses whether it’s happening in our City our thousands of miles away,” Epstein told Fox News. “This street renaming is an important way to honor a young life lost too soon and send a message to an oppressive state with no concept of human rights for its own citizens or visitors.”
Yet despite the wide range of support, the council has so far taken no action.
New York City has a history of naming existing streets after various political causes, politicians, human rights and political activists. The most recent renaming for a cause went to the Black Lives Matter movement, where a portion of Centre Street, near City Hall, was renamed “Black Lives Matter Boulevard.” In addition, murals were painted on a street in each of the five boroughs honoring the group.
In the Bronx, officials have endorsed the city council renaming a stretch of White Plains Road as “Ibrahim al-Hamdi Way,” to honor the former president of Yemen, who was assassinated in 1977.
“As deserving of some sort of recognition as former Yemeni President Ibrahim al-Hamdi may be, it seems curious that the city council will name a street after someone who never set foot in the U.S., while so far denying an American martyr the same honor,” said Mark Foley, the Republican and Liberal party candidate for city council on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“While we often say ‘Never forget,’ concrete actions like this ensure that we do not. An evil, repressive regime that has total control over people’s lives, and even the power of life and death itself, must never be countenanced. Otto Warmbier was at the very beginning of his adult life, when he was kidnapped and tortured by thugs under the orders of an evil communist regime. This is a true reminder of the reality and stark brutality of authoritarian government. Let the North Koreans see this every single day, and let them know that we see them and who they are,” he said.
Korean Americans, some of whom know the savagery of Kim Jong Un’s regime firsthand, are also on board, including two Korean American members of Congress.
“Mr. Warmbier experienced what no American – or human being – should ever have to go through. Renaming the street of the North Korean regime’s mission to the United Nations ‘Otto Warmbier Way’ allows our country to honor Mr. Warmbier’s life and sends a strong message to the North Korean regime that the United States of America will not back down from holding them accountable for their repeated human rights abuses,” said Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., who was born in Incheon, South Korea.
“As one of the first Korean American women to serve in Congress, an immigrant from South Korea, and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I support this initiative and will continue to do my part to advocate for global human rights and hold violators accountable,” Rep. Kim said.
Kim’s fellow Californian, Rep. Michelle Steel, who was born in Seoul, shares those sentiments.
“Otto Warmbier’s death is a tragic reminder of the brutality of North Korea’s regime and lack of concern for human life. Otto should be alive today and should have had the opportunity to live in New York City like he planned. Naming this street after him would serve as a reminder to the North Korean regime that the U.S. stands firmly against their gross human rights abuses, and to Otto’s family that he will not be forgotten,” said Steel.
The Washington, D.C.–based activist group The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea hopes Manhattan’s “Otto Warmbier Way” will be the first of many more such streets that will be renamed in front of the 49 North Korea’s embassies scattered around the globe.
“The Kim regime imprisoned and killed Otto Warmbier,” said HRNK executive director Greg Scarlatoiu.
“Millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of this regime. More than a hundred thousand men, women and children are being tortured, starved, and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. Renaming the stretch of road in front of the North Korean permanent mission to the United Nations in New York City ‘Otto Warmbier Way’ could be the opening salvo in a global effort to call the Kim regime to account for its crimes.”
A bill for the street renaming must be approved by all 51 members of the New York City Council before being signed into law by the mayor.
Ben Evansky contributed to this report.