Group sues North Korea for 1972 terror attack (and wins)

UPDATE (Oct, 3, 2010): The Los Angeles Times has also picked up this story:

Plaintiffs’ attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner was in her Jerusalem office in July when she got news of the Puerto Rican court’s verdict.

A judge there had just issued a $378-million civil judgment for her clients: the families of 17 Puerto Rican missionaries killed by Japanese Red Army militants at an Israeli airport in 1972.

Yet her euphoria was tempered by pragmatic reality: She would have to try to collect the judgment from a defiant North Korea, which the judge ruled had decades ago given training and support to the assailants.

Over the years, Darshan-Leitner has collected more than $72 million in judgments against Iran and the Palestinian Authority. But cash-strapped, isolationist North Korea had already ignored her legal motions and none of its officials showed up for even a day in court.

Legal judgments against Kim Jong Il and his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in several civil cases have added up to more than $500 million. But not a dime has been collected.

The regime in “Pyongyang is secretive and they’re poor,” said Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center, which pursues lawsuits against nations accused of sponsoring terrorism. “Since they don’t export many things, you have to look hard for the money.”

North Korea has for years been an elusive legal target. In 1988, it was added to Washington’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. But U.S. law at the time precluded suits against foreign countries.

That changed in 1996 when Congress amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, allowing plaintiffs to pursue in court governments identified as state sponsors of terrorism. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list after it agreed to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities, closing the door on further lawsuits against Pyongyang.

But in the 12-year window of opportunity, some attorneys were successful in suing North Korea. In 2008, Washington-based attorney Richard Streeter won a $65.8-million judgment in a District of Columbia federal court on behalf of several crewmen of the U.S. Navy intelligence ship Pueblo, who had been held captive for 11 months by Pyongyang in 1968.

Silent for decades, the plaintiffs contacted Streeter in 2006 after his success in helping to collect on a judgment against Iran for a case involving the murder of a U.S. Navy diver by hijackers in 1985.

On Oct. 10, 2008, the day before North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, Darshan-Leitner filed suit against the regime on behalf of the family of Kim Dong Shik. The Chicago minister was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 2000 while on a trip to China and presumably died in a North Korean prison camp. The case is still pending.

Armed with her judgment in the Puerto Rico case, Darshan-Leitner is on the hunt for North Korean money and property worldwide and is looking into reports of $32 million in regime assets frozen by the U.S. government.

For his part, Streeter has filed motions against banks nationwide to disclose the names and balances on frozen accounts and has petitioned the U.S. government in court for more leads. He’s also preparing to take the search outside the country.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are reluctant to give specifics of their search for fear of alerting target nations. In a case against Iran, Darshan-Leitner found banks in Germany and Italy where assets were being held, but by the time she filed motions, Tehran had withdrawn them, she said.

“We have some leads, but we can’t say in what countries — bank accounts that belong to the North Korean government and the Central Bank of North Korea,” she said. “When we confirm the money is there, we will approach lawyers in those countries to go to court and try to collect.”

In another case against the Iranian government, Darshan-Leitner filed motions in a Texas court to collect on funds from the sale of a seized Lubbock home once owned by the shah of Iran. She is also attempting to seize Persian antiquities kept at the University of Chicago as a way to collect on a judgment against the current government of Iran, she said.

In their collection efforts, lawyers often run up against the U.S. government.

“The U.S. State Department doesn’t like these cases,” said David Strachman, a Rhode Island attorney who has collected on judgments against foreign countries. “They take the position that private litigation by victims interferes with their closely held prerogative of international relations. In many cases, they come in as the 1,000-pound gorilla to try and stop us.”

The State Department declined to comment, but an official familiar with such cases says the agency has no written policy on citizens trying to collect judgments against foreign countries.

Still, one expert called such pursuits “a new and evolving area” that have prompted State Department interference.

“They don’t want to set a precedent,” said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University’s School of Law in San Antonio. “Their argument is that if we seize assets of another nation to distribute to victims, what’s to stop them from fabricating cases to seize U.S. assets abroad?”

Darshan-Leitner hopes that Kim Jong Il’s regime might one day follow the lead of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, who, after years of resistance settled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of judgments over his nation’s involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

“Nobody pays attention unless these nations are held accountable,” said Han Kim, the son of the Chicago minister abducted by North Korea.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ lawyers continue their hunt for North Korean assets.

“I don’t know whether we’ll ever be successful. That’s the sad part,” said Streeter. He said he charged each of four plaintiffs a $5,000 retainer but will receive no more until a judgment is collected.

“But I want to see some of that money that Kim Jong Il is using to buy his yachts and his Courvoisier as payment to my clients,” he said. “I’ll take it in Courvoisier. I don’t care.”

Read the full story here:
Plaintiffs’ attorneys hunt for North Korea’s money
Los Angeles Times
John M. Glionna
10/3/2010

UPDATE (July 18, 2010): Being a lawyer, Joshua does a great job finding and posting posting legal documents related to the DPRK at One Free Korea.  Most recently he posted a civil ruling which finds the DPRK liable for an airport attack in Israel. According to Joshua:

North Korea was held liable for its role in supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Japanese Red Army, which planned the attack together in North Korea. North Korea did not contest the suit. The award consisted of $78 million in compensatory damages awarded to the estates and surviving relatives of the victims, and $300 million in punitive damages.

You can read the ruling here (PDF).

Joshua has posted information from other civil litigation cases here.

The Washington Times did a story.

ORIGINAL POST (Dec 2, 2009): According to the WorldTribune.com:

Families of victims have filed suit against North Korea on charges of supporting a major attack by the Japanese Red Army in Israel.

The group, Shurat HaDin, has filed a suit in a U.S. district court in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the families of the victims of the 1972 attack.

During the assault on Lod Airport, 26 people were killed and 80 others were injured by attackers alleged to have been trained by North Korea. The attack was attributed to the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“This will be the first time North Korea is being held to account in a U.S. court for its support of terrorism over many decades,” Shurat HaDin said on Dec. 1.

According to Shurat HaDin‘s web page:

The case arises from a lawsuit brought by the families of victims of the 1972 terror attack at the Lod Airport in Israel in which 26 people were killed and 80 injured. The complaint alleges that the government of North Korea trained and financed the terrorists who perpetrated the heinous massacre.

The families are represented by Shurat HaDin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the Osen Law group, attorney Robert Tolchin of New York and attorney Manuel San Juan of Puerto Rico.

In May 1972, terrorists from the Japanese Red Army (JRA), working in league with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), placed automatic weapons, ammunition, and grenades in their check-in luggage on a flight from Italy to Israel. When their bags emerged in Tel-Aviv at the arrivals hall, they took out the weapons and opened fire in every direction mowing down passengers, flight crew members and airport workers. They also attempted to blow up airplanes on the ground using hand grenades. Two of the three attackers were killed, and a third, Kozo Akumoto, was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in Israel.

Most of the victims were Catholic pilgrims from Puerto Rico who had come to visit the Holy Land for the first time.

North Korea was behind the attack. As the trial will show incontrovertibly, in the months leading up to the massacre the leaders of the JRA and PFLP met each other and with North Korean officials, who provided funding, intelligence, training, and other material support for the terrorists. The attack was part of the JRA’s declared strategy of taking their anti-Western violence and plans of communist revoultion to other parts of the world, beginning with Israel—a strategy approved by the North Korean government.

This will be the first time North Korea is being held to account in a U.S. court for its support of terrorism over many decades. It is widely known that one of the world’s most oppressive regimes is also a consistent support of terrorism, including providing weaponry, training bases, and funding for Palestinian terrorist organizations. They were also responsible for building an enormous underground bunker system for Hezbollah that dramatically increased the terrorist group’s fighting capacity in the 2006 Lebanon War.  For this reason, the U.S. State Department put North Korea on its official list of states that sponsor terror in 1988—a fact that makes it possible for American victims to sue the North Korean government and collect against their assets in a U.S. court. Although North Korea was removed from the list late in 2008 for political reasons, the current lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Puerto Rican families before the deadline for filing lawsuits, as were two other lawsuits Shurat HaDin currently has pending against North Korea.

The trial will begin on December 3 in the U.S. Federal Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A copy of the complaint can be found here.

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