(photo credit: INIMAGE)
An Israeli NGO announced on Monday that a US federal court in Washington, DC has granted it a landmark $330 million default award judgment against North Korea in a civil damages trial for wrongful death, torture and kidnapping.
The judgment, only announced Monday, included $15 m. each to the son and brother of Rev. Kim Dong Shik, presumed dead, as well as $300 m. in punitive damages.
But default judgments where the defendant does not even appear to defend the charges, are notoriously hard to collect on, especially with a regime like North Korea, which has few connections to the US or the West in general.
A statement from Shurat Hadin said that the family is now investigating all the possible avenues to collect the judgment against North Korean assets including seizing bank accounts, property and shares in foreign companies in the United States and abroad.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat Hadin, said, “This is an important human rights decision that will be utilized in all political abduction cases going forward.”
The court said that the two $15 m.
and the $300 m. damages awards were consistent with comparable cases against North Korea and Iran for other similar wrongful actions and recognized the tremendous suffering by Dong Shik’s family members.
In December 2014, Shurat Hadin convinced a US federal appeals court to grant default judgment against North Korea on liability, paving the way for Monday’s massive damages award by the lower district court.
The ruling by the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, written by Judge David S. Tatel, reversed an earlier US District Court ruling which had dismissed the case, despite North Korea failing to defend itself, on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to present any direct evidence of what happened to Dong Shik.
Before the federal appeals court reversed the dismissal, granting default judgment and sending the case back to the district court to award damages, the district court had expressed regret to the family, represented by Shurat Hadin – Israel Law Center, Robert Tolchin and Asher Perlin, about the dismissal and noted that North Korea is notorious for exactly the kind of kidnapping, torture and killing of prisoners like Dong Shik.
However, the district court said that North Korea has successfully prevented any specific details from leaking out regarding Dong Shik’s plight and that all of the evidence presented was hearsay and second- hand, including a South Korean court ruling on the issue.
In contrast, the appeals court said that in such extreme circumstances, where it is proven that Pyongyang kidnapped Kim, where there is a wealth of information about it torturing and killing prisoners, where it systematically prevents direct evidence from emerging and where the North Koreans have not at all countered the plaintiffs’ claims, failing to rule against it would be like sticking one’s head in the sand.
It would also “defeat the purpose of the terrorism exception,” namely holding “state sponsors of terrorism accountable,” said the court.
The ruling is also significant because it allows a case to go forward based on the “terrorism exception” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which somewhat broadens the paths and precedents open to suing foreign nations for terrorist acts.
Dong-Shik, a South Korean who was a permanent resident of the US and had spent seven years providing aid and proselytizing to North Korean defectors who tried to escape to China, was abducted in 2000.
A 2005 South Korean court convicted an ethnic Korean of his abduction in concert with North Korean intelligence.
Darshan-Leitner said, “Virtually no one has ever returned from the camps and been able to testify about the fate of individual Korean prisoners. This is an important human rights decision that will be utilized in all political abduction cases going forward. We are proud that an Israeli NGO was able to assist this family of a Korean priest living in the US.”
The NGO also said that the US should return North Korea to the US State Department’s watch list, from which it was removed in 2008 during a period of warming of relations.