SEOUL — A grieving couple in Ohio, a retired kindergarten teacher in 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 sued North Korea.
Their civil litigation — often for physical abuse and kidnapping at the hands of North Korean authorities — is part of a quiet, years-long effort by a handful of individuals seeking justice despite the enormous challenge of still collecting money from of the isolated nation. Similar lawsuits have been filed against the governments of Iran, Syria and other US adversaries.
These families generally hope the prosecution will keep their charges in the public eye and lay the groundwork for criminal prosecutions in international courts, said Gregory S. Gordon, a law professor who served as a prosecutor or adviser on international criminal cases in Bosnia. , in Cambodia. and Rwanda.
On a personal level, the cases are vehicles for families to deal with the trauma of their loss, said Professor Gordon, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Being able to submit these claims allows them to go through this process more efficiently and holistically,” he added.
Even though lawsuits are rare and the chances of giant payouts extremely slim, US courts have recently awarded a few plaintiffs money from seized North Korean assets. This has given some families in the United States and East Asia reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Retired teacher Choi Byung-hee has a new audience in South Korea later this summer. “I will continue to press until justice is served,” said Ms Choi, 73, whose father was abducted and sent to North Korea when she was a baby. “Since the government does not want to help us, I am taking matters into my own hands.”
Successes and setbacks
In the United States, a multitude of cases were filed in civil courts against individuals, many of whom were public officials, beginning in the 1980s under an obscure 18th century law that has since been restricted by the Supreme Court. Other families filed civil lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which opened federal courts to classes of cases, including terrorism, against foreign governments.
Perhaps the most notable recent victory is the case involving the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died in 2017 after suffering a brain injury in a North Korean prison. They received over half a billion dollars in damages the following year. And in 2021, the same court awarded $2.3 billion to the crew members (and their surviving relatives) of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship that had been held hostage by North Korea. for 11 months in 1968.
This partial success has inspired some people outside the United States to sue North Korea in local courts. One of them is Eiko Kawasaki, 79, an ethnic Korean woman born in Japan, who moved to North Korea in 1960 and eventually married a North Korean man. She did not return to Japan until her defection in 2003 after her husband’s death, leaving her children behind.
Ms Kawasaki had traveled to the North as part of a resettlement program led by Pyongyang and facilitated by Japan, which had colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. She worked for years in a North Korean factory and suffered discrimination and a lack of food, she says.
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. suffered under the resettlement programme.
The court dismissed their case in March, in part because a 20-year statute of limitations had expired. But he accepted much of the evidence they submitted, potentially laying the groundwork for future cases against the North. Their lawyer said at the time that they planned to appeal.
Ms Kawasaki’s children remain in North Korea and she said in an interview that the ruling, along with the Warmbier family’s court victory in 2018, gave her hope of winning the appeal. She added that her financial request – 100 million yen, about $734,000 – was far less important than her desire to see her family.
It can be difficult for young people today to understand how such human rights abuses can take place in North Korea, she added. “But it really could happen to anyone, anytime. Like Otto. Or me.”
“They want justice”
Winning a civil default judgment against North Korea in the United States does not translate to immediate cash compensation, in part because the country has few assets or properties that US authorities can seize. This forces applicants to pursue other options.
In 2019, Otto Warmbier’s parents were among the plaintiffs who raised an undisclosed sum of money when US authorities sold a captured North Korean cargo ship. And in January, a New York state court ruled that $240,000 that was to be seized from a state-owned North Korean bank should also be returned to the family.
Multiple efforts to reach the Warmbiers and their attorneys were unsuccessful. In 2018, Otto’s father, Fred Warmbier, told a symposium at the United Nations headquarters in New York that the family was trying to build a legal “pathway” to hold Mr Kim, the leader of the North, accountable. of their 22 years. the death of the eldest son.
“How can anyone keep quiet when this is happening? The only thing we can do is rub their noses at it,” Otto’s mother, Cindy Warmbier, said at the symposium, referring to North Korean officials. “It embarrasses them.”
The family’s lawyers appear to be following a strategy of filing claims in court over seized North Korean assets before they can be deposited into a US government fund that compensates victims of state-sponsored terrorism in the world, said Joshua Stanton, a lawyer in Washington who helped Congress draft sanctions legislation against North Korea.
As for the Warmbiers, he said, “They’re not in it for the money. They want justice.
A life of waiting
In South Korea, there is no financial support system for victims of North Korean abductions during the Korean War, according to the country’s Unification Ministry. A few plaintiffs won judgments against North Korea in local courts, but were unable to collect money.
In one case, two former South Korean soldiers who had been taken to North Korea as prisoners of war in the 1950s sued the country in 2016, 15 years after their escape. The men, now 88 and 92, were each awarded about 21 million won, or $16,200, in damages.
In a separate case, Ms Choi, the retired teacher whose father, Choi Tae-jip, was abducted and brought to North Korea in 1950, was awarded 50 million won in damages after suing Korea North.
In both cases, the plaintiffs sought compensation from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Foundation, a South Korean nonprofit organization that collected two billion won, or about $1.5 million, in royalties. author to South Korean media that had used content in North Korean state media. media. When the foundation refused to pay, arguing in court that its royalties did not belong to the North Korean state, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit.
A Seoul court dismissed the case filed by the former POWs, saying the money did not belong to the North Korean state. Tae-seob Um, a lawyer representing them, said in an interview that they plan to appeal.
Ms Choi, who was born Choi Sook-yi, has a court hearing in August. She said her father’s long absence had inflicted deep psychological wounds on her family. When his mother died in 1993, she had for decades harbored the faint hope that her husband might miraculously return.
“If we had known he was dead, we would have mourned the loss and it would be over,” Ms Choi said through tears in a quavering voice. “Instead, my mother lived a life of expectation.”
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.