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U.S. Court Orders N. Korea to Pay Damages to Crew and Family of USS Pueblo



A U.S. federal court has ordered North Korea to pay 2.3 billion dollars in damages to the crew and family of the spy ship USS Pueblo captured by North Korea in 1968. 

In principle, the U.S. government bans lawsuits against other governments. 

But as an exception, a foreign government can be sued in U.S. courts if it has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Accordingly, some lawsuits from families of victims abducted by North Korea have proceeded in the U.S. 

According to U.S. media agencies including the Voice of America on February 25, the U.S. federal district court for Washington D.C. has concluded that North Korea is responsible for all the claims by the plaintiffs related to the so-called Pueblo incident. Here is political commentator Lee Jong-hoon to explain what this incident is all about. 

On January 23, 1968, the Pueblo, which was the U.S. Navy spy ship, was captured by North Korea after it was threatened by four patrol boats and two MiG fighters in the waters off the east coast of North Korea. Tension mounted at the time, as the U.S. also deployed its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. North Korea released 82 crew and the remains of one crew member in December that year, only after the U.S. signed a document apologizing for entering North Korea’s territorial waters. The U.S. accepted North Korea’s demand because it wanted the North to send all the crew back home. The crew members reported having been subject to harsh treatment and torture during their stay in North Korea. 

The Pueblo still remains in North Korea. Moored along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, the ship is used as a propaganda museum. 

The U.S., in principle, never negotiates with terrorist groups. Back then, however, the U.S. had to do what it could in order to bring its many sailors back home, going as far as to hold humiliating negotiations. For North Korea, the incident was a great opportunity for propaganda. The North proudly claimed that it made such a remarkable achievement in a fight with the imperialist power of the U.S. and received an apology from it. 

North Korea displays the Pueblo along the Taedong River—the very spot where the USS General Sherman vessel was burned and sank by soldiers of the Korean kingdom of Joseon in 1866. North Korea even claims that the destruction of the American ship was led by the great grandfather of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. 

In February 2018, the Pueblo crew and their family members filed a lawsuit against North Korea in a federal court. The court granted 776.03 million dollars for 49 crew members, 200.25 million dollars for 90 living family members and 179.21 million dollars for 31 deceased family members. With punitive damage compensation of 1.15 billion dollars added, the court ordered North Korea to play a total of 2.3 billion dollars. It is the largest amount of compensation ordered by any U.S. court against North Korea. Commentator Lee explains how the compensatory damages were calculated. 

The victims and their families initially demanded about 6 billion dollars, much more than the amount granted by the ruling. The U.S. court calculated compensation of 3.35 million dollars for each crew member, that is, 10-thousand dollars per day for 335 days of detention. The court also considered mental damage suffered over the last 50 years. It is said that most crew suffered long-lasting side effects from torture they had undergone during their captivity in North Korea. Also, the crew’s economic damage after returning home was also taken into account. The result is the highest amount of compensation in the history of a North Korean lawsuit. 

However, North Korea is very unlikely to accept the ruling and pay compensations. The country has never taken part in the lawsuit, and the trial proceeded in the form of “default judgment,” where the defendant does not respond and the court makes a judgment based solely on the plaintiff’s argument. A default judgment also occurred in the case of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. student who died in 2017 shortly after he returned home following his release from detention in North Korea. 

In 2019, a U.S. court ordered North Korea to pay more than 500 million dollars in damages to the bereaved family of Warmbier, but North Korea has not paid the compensation. Apparently, it will not respond to the latest ruling about the Pueblo case, either. 

Basically, North Korea does not respond to legal cases outside the country, as it claims that it didn’t do anything wrong. So, trials have proceeded based only on the victims’ testimonies and evidence. Such examples include the lawsuit filed by the Warmbier family and the one by a South Korean prisoner of war who was taken to North Korea during the Korean War and escaped the North later. He filed a lawsuit for damages against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and a South Korean court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. 

While North Korea is unlikely to pay compensation directly, it is still possible to confiscate North Korean assets abroad to collect damage compensation. In fact, we’ve seen an increasing number of cases where the U.S. government filed for confiscation suits for assets related to North Korea or assets that violate sanctions against the North. And people affected by North Korea can claim those funds. In 2019, the Warmbier family actually acquired the ownership of the Wise Honest, a North Korean vessel that had been seized by the U.S. government for violating international sanctions. 

Part of North Korean assets overseas has been frozen due to international sanctions against the North. After the Warmbier-related trial, the U.S. court granted a “protective order” requiring three U.S. banks to disclose information about the frozen North Korean funds deposited at the banks to the Warmbiers. The Warmbier family is expected to track down and seize North Korean assets in the U.S. and possibly in other parts of the world. I imagine families of the Pueblo crew will follow suit. 

Some speculate that the recent U.S. court decision may worsen the North Korea-U.S. relations, which have already been strained since the collapse of their second summit in Hanoi in 2019. Attention is also drawn to whether the U.S. will use this case as a means of imposing sanctions on North Korea. But commentator Lee has a different opinion. 

I don’t think this case will serve as a negative factor to affect North Korea-U.S. relations. In the U.S., where the government system is divided into the legislative, the judicial and the administrative branches, it is not appropriate for the administration to be responsible for a court decision. The U.S. might request the return of the Pueblo, which officially remains a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy. South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young has suggested that the possible return of the Pueblo could provide a turning point for North Korea-U.S. ties. As Lee said, this issue could be used to find a breakthrough in bilateral relations.

In 2008, then-Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored a resolution seeking the return of the Pueblo, indicating that Biden is deeply interested in this issue. It remains to be seen how the U.S. court decision may influence North Korea-U.S. relations. 

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