“Not for money”: why some families are suing North Korea

SEOUL. A grieving couple from Ohio, a retired preschool teacher from South Korea and a woman who left Japan 62 years ago have one thing in common: they are among a small number of people who have sued North Korea.

Their civil litigation — often over abuse and kidnappings by North Korean authorities — is part of a quiet multi-year effort by a handful of people to seek justice despite the huge problem of getting money from an isolated country. Similar lawsuits have been filed against the governments of Iran, Syria, and other American adversaries.

These families typically hope lawsuits will bring their allegations to public attention and lay the groundwork for criminal prosecutions in international courts, said Gregory S. Gordon, a law professor who has served as a prosecutor or adviser on international criminal cases in Bosnia, Cambodia. and Rwanda.

On a personal level, these cases help families cope with the trauma of loss, said Professor Gordon, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Being able to make these claims allows them to go through the process more effectively and holistically,” he added.

While lawsuits are rare and the chances of huge payouts extremely slim, U.S. courts have recently awarded several plaintiffs money raised from confiscated North Korean assets. This has given some families in the United States and East Asia cause for cautious optimism.

Retired teacher Choi Byung-hee will have a new court hearing in South Korea this summer. “I will insist until we get justice,” said Ms Choi, 73, whose father was kidnapped and sent to North Korea when she was a child. “Since the government won’t help us, I’m taking matters into my own hands.”

In the United States, many cases have been brought in civil courts against individuals, many of whom were public servants, starting in the 1980s under a little-known 18th-century law that has since been narrowed down by the Supreme Court. Other families filed civil lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which opened up federal courts to hear cases against foreign governments in categories of cases including terrorism.

Perhaps the most notable recent victory was the case of the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 after suffering a head injury in a North Korean prison. The following year, they were awarded over half a billion dollars in compensation. And in 2021, the same court awarded $2.3 billion to the crew members (and their surviving relatives) of the USS Pueblo, which was held hostage by North Korea for 11 months in 1968.

This partial success inspired some people outside the US to sue North Korea in local courts. One of them is Eiko Kawasaki, 79, a Japanese-born ethnic Korean who moved to North Korea in 1960 and eventually married a North Korean. She did not return to Japan until she fled in 2003 after her husband’s death, leaving behind her children.

Ms. Kawasaki traveled to the North as part of a resettlement program run by Pyongyang with the assistance of Japan, which colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. She worked at a North Korean factory for many years and suffered discrimination and food shortages, she said.

In 2018, months after the Warmbiers won their case in the United States, Ms. Kawasaki and four other defectors sued North leader Kim Jong-un in a Tokyo court for damages they said they had suffered. under the resettlement program.

Court dismissed their case in March, partly because the 20-year statute of limitations had expired. But he accepted much of the evidence they presented, potentially setting the stage for future cases against the North. Their lawyer then said they planned to appeal.

Ms Kawasaki’s children remain in North Korea, and she said in an interview that the decision, along with the Warmbier family’s 2018 court victory, gave her hope that she could win the appeal. She added that her financial demand – 100 million yen, about $734,000 – was far less important than her desire to see her family.

She added that it can be difficult for young people today to understand how such human rights violations can take place in North Korea. “But it really can happen to anyone, at any time. Like Otto. Or me.”

Winning a civil judgment against North Korea in the United States does not mean immediate monetary compensation, in part because the country has few assets or property that US authorities can confiscate. This forces plaintiffs to look for other options.

In 2019, Otto Warmbier’s parents were among the plaintiffs who received an undisclosed amount of money when US authorities sold a captured North Korean cargo ship. And in January, a New York state court ruled that the $240,000 should have been withdrawn from state-owned North Korean bank should also be given to the family.

Numerous attempts to contact the Warmbiers and their lawyers were unsuccessful. In 2018, Otto’s father, Fred Warmbier, said at a symposium at United Nations headquarters in New York that the family was trying to pave a legal “path” to hold Mr. Kim, leader of the North, accountable for their 22-year-old … death of the eldest son.

“How can you be silent when this is happening? The only thing we can do is poke their noses into this,” said Otto’s mother, Cindy Warmbier. said at the symposium, referring to North Korean officials. – It bothers them.

Lawyers for the family appear to be pursuing a strategy of filing lawsuits against confiscated North Korean assets before they can be turned over to a United States government fund that compensates victims of state terrorism around the world, said Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based lawyer who helped Congress to develop legislation regarding sanctions against North Korea.

As for the Warmbears, he said: “They are not here for the money. They want justice.”

According to the country’s unification ministry, South Korea does not have a financial support system for victims of North Korean kidnappings during the Korean War. Several plaintiffs have won legal cases against North Korea in local courts but have been unable to collect the money.

In one case, two former South Korean soldiers who were brought to North Korea as prisoners of war in the 1950s sued the country in 2016, 15 years after their escape. The men, now aged 88 and 92, were awarded around 21 million won or $16,200 in damages.

In another case, Ms. Choi, a former pre-school teacher whose father, Choi Tae-jeep, was abducted and taken to North Korea in 1950, was awarded 50 million won, or about $39,000 in damages after filing a lawsuit against North Korea. USA.

The plaintiffs in both cases sought compensation from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Foundation, a South Korean non-profit organization that received two billion won, or about $1.5 million, in royalties from South Korean media outlets that used the content in the North Korean government. MASS MEDIA. When the foundation refused to pay, claiming in court that its fees did not belong to the North Korean state, the plaintiffs sued.

A Seoul court dismissed the former POWs’ claim, saying the money does not belong to the North Korean state. Tae Seob Wum, the lawyer who represents them, said in an interview that they plan to appeal.

Ms. Choi, née Choi Suk Yi, will have a court hearing in August. She said that the long absence of her father caused her family deep psychological trauma. When her mother died in 1993, she cherished for decades the faint hope that her husband would miraculously return.

“If we knew that he had died, we would have mourned this loss and be done with it,” Ms. Choi said through her tears in a trembling voice. “Instead, my mother lived in anticipation.”

Hisako Ueno provided a report from Tokyo.

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