US court fines N. Korea $300m

Penalty levied for role in '72 Ben-Gurion attack.

Kim Jong Il 311 (photo credit: AP)
Kim Jong Il 311
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – A US judge has fined North Korea for its role in a 1972 terror attack in Israel, a landmark ruling that for the first time holds Pyongyang accountable for such activity, according to lawyers involved with the case.
On the heels of the decision, the US separately announced Wednesday that it was intensifying sanctions on Pyongyang as a response to the sinking of a South Korean warship apparently at the hands of North Korea in March.
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The moves have the shared effect of intensifying pressure on the isolated regime of Kim Jong-Il, though few expect his government to pay the $300 million demanded by the court.
In a ruling delivered Friday, US District Court Judge Francisco Besosa in Puerto Rico found North Korea liable for its role in providing material support to the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which killed 26 people and wounded more than 80 others in a shooting spree at Lod Airport, now Ben- Gurion Airport.
Many of those killed were tourists from Puerto Rico, including Carmelo Calderon- Molina. His family, along with that of Pablo Tirado-Ayala, who was wounded in the attack, brought the suit in 2006.
“It’s very significant, since it’s the first judgment against North Korea,” said Israeli lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who represented the families.
She said the case was motivated in part as a protest against the US’s removing North Korea from its statesponsors- of-terror list, adding that she hoped this would encourage the government to reconsider its decision, since the ruling demonstrated that North Korea “is involved with terrorism.”
Darshan-Leitner acknowledged that it was very unlikely the families would recoup the $78m. in compensatory damages and $300m. in punitive damages awarded by the court, short of a US-North Korea reconciliation in which restitution was part of the conditions for rapprochement. But she said she would seek North Korean assets in the US that could be seized and other means of obtaining some of the owed money in the meantime.
Still, the ruling alone was important for the families, according to Darshan-Leitner.
“It kind of brings closure, that someone is now found responsible for the attack and may have to pay for the damages,” she explained. “It’s important for them not to leave it up in the air.”
North Korea expert Nicholas Szechenyi of the Washingtonbased Center for Strategic and International Studies agreed that Pyongyang was unlikely to cough up the funds it owed.
“North Korea reactions to judgments about its behavior typically include provocative statements and bravado,” he noted.
But he said the judgment could still serve as an important reminder of the regime’s bad behavior, even if it alone didn’t cause the US to redesignate it.
“You could see increased calls for putting North Korea back on the terror list,” he assessed.
“It’s another example of how North Korea has tormented the international community, and I think it’s important in that respect.”
Szechenyi said the sanctions would likely also lead to more North Korean bluster, but that they could nonetheless seriously affect the regime and even encourage it to back down.
“One thing North Korea needs to [continue] its nuclear program and other illicit actions is hard cash,” he pointed out.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the new sanctions during a trip to South Korea along with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who presented a united stance with Seoul.
Gates said the visit was intended “to send a strong signal to the North, to the region and to the world that our commitment to South Korea’s security is steadfast.”
“In fact, our military alliance has never been stronger and should deter any potential aggressor,” he said.
AP contributed to this report.