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‘Not in This for the Money’: Why Some Families Sue North Korea

SEOUL — A grieving couple in Ohio, a retired preschool 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 have sued North Korea.

Their civil litigation — often over physical mistreatment and abductions at the hands of North Korean authorities — is part of a quiet, yearslong effort by a handful of individuals seeking justice despite the huge challenge of ever collecting money from the isolated nation. Similar suits have been filed against the governments of Iran, Syria and other American adversaries.

These families typically hope the lawsuits will keep their accusations in the public eye 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 for international criminal cases in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.

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

Even though the lawsuits are rare and the chances of giant payouts exceedingly slim, American courts have recently awarded a few plaintiffs money derived from seized North Korean assets. That has given some families in the United States and East Asia a reason to be cautiously optimistic.

The retired teacher, Choi Byung-hee, has a fresh court hearing in South Korea later this summer. “I’m going to keep pushing until we get justice,” said Ms. Choi, 73, whose father was abducted and sent to North Korea when she was a baby. “Since the government won’t help us, I’m taking things into my own hands.”

In the United States, a flurry of cases were filed in civil courts against individuals, many of them government officials, starting in the 1980s, under an obscure 18th-century law that has since been narrowed by the Supreme Court. Other families have filed civil cases under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which opened federal courts to categories of cases, including terrorism, against foreign governments.

Perhaps the most notable recent victory was the case involving the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 after suffering a brain injury in a North Korean prison. They were awarded more than 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 U.S.S. Pueblo, an American naval ship that had been held hostage by North Korea for 11 months in 1968.

That partial success has inspired some people outside the United States to sue North Korea in local courts. One 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 she defected in 2003 after the death of her husband, leaving her children behind.

Ms. Kawasaki had traveled to the North as part of a resettlement program that was run 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 from discrimination and a lack of food, she said.

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

The court rejected their case in March, in part because a 20-year statute of limitations had expired. But it 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 2018 court victory, gave her hope that she could win the appeal. She added that her financial claim — 100 million yen, about $734,000 — was far less important than her desire to see her family.

It may be hard for young people today to understand how such human rights violations could take place in North Korea, she added. “But it could really happen to anyone, anytime. Like Otto. Or me.”

Winning a default civil judgment against North Korea in the United States does not translate into an immediate cash award, in part because the country has few assets or properties that the American authorities can seize. That forces plaintiffs to pursue other options.

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

Multiple efforts to reach the Warmbiers and their lawyers were unsuccessful. In 2018, Otto’s father, Fred Warmbier, said at a symposium at the United Nations headquarters in New York that the family was trying to build a legal “pathway” to holding Mr. Kim, the North’s leader, responsible for their 22-year-old son’s death.

“How can anybody be quiet when this is going on? The only thing we can do is rub their noses in this,” 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 court claims on seized North Korean assets before they can be deposited into a United States government fund that compensates victims of state-sponsored terrorism around the world, said Joshua Stanton, a lawyer in Washington who has helped Congress draft legislation related to sanctions on North Korea.

As for the Warmbiers, he said, “They’re not in this for the money. They want justice.”

In South Korea, there is no system for giving financial support to victims of North Korean abductions during the Korean War, according to the country’s Ministry of Unification. A few plaintiffs have 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 escaping. The men, now 88 and 92, were each awarded about 21 million won, or $16,200, in damages.

In another case, Ms. Choi, the retired preschool teacher whose father, Choi Tae-jip, was abducted and brought to North Korea in 1950, was awarded 50 million won, or about $39,000, in damages after suing North Korea.

The plaintiffs in both cases requested compensation from the Foundation of Inter-Korea Cooperation, a South Korean nonprofit that had collected two billion won, or about $1.5 million, in copyright royalties from South Korean media outlets that had used content in North Korea’s state-run news media. When the foundation refused to pay, arguing in a court that its royalties did not belong to the North Korean state, the plaintiffs sued.

A Seoul court dismissed the case filed by the former prisoners of war, saying the money did not belong to the North Korean state. Tae-seob Um, a lawyer who represents them, said in an interview that they planned 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 her mother died in 1993, she had for decades been holding out a faint hope that her husband might miraculously return.

“If we had known that he had died, we would have grieved the loss and been done with it,” Ms. Choi said through tears in a quavering voice. “Instead, my mother lived a life of waiting.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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