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SEOUL, South Korea — When Kim Dong-shik, a South Korean pastor with permanent resident status in the United States, was abducted 15 years ago in northeastern China, his friends and family suspected North Korean involvement. The Pyongyang government loathes clergymen like Mr. Kim, who worked and proselytized among North Koreans who had fled to China.
But Mr. Kim’s family had no evidence to point to — until 2005, when a Chinese man went on trial in Seoul. That man confessed to, and was convicted of, helping to abduct Mr. Kim and at least 17 other people from China on behalf of North Korea’s secret police agency, the Ministry of State Security.
Last week, armed in part with that evidence, Mr. Kim’s son and brother, both American citizens, won a $330 million judgment against the North Korean government in a United States court for the pastor’s abduction and presumed torture and killing.
North Korea, which has never admitted kidnapping Mr. Kim and refused to respond to the family’s lawsuit, is highly unlikely to pay the damages ordered on April 9 by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. But lawyers are conducting a global search for North Korean assets, like bank accounts, real estate and shares in companies, for possible confiscation, according to Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a lawyer for the Kims and founder of Shurat HaDin, a civil rights group based in Tel Aviv that has often sued sovereign states and militant groups on behalf of terrorism and torture victims.
“The court decision marks the first time that an American court has concluded that a foreign regime which abducts an individual who is then never heard from again has the burden of proving that he has not been murdered,” Shurat HaDin said in a news release on Monday announcing the court’s ruling.
The lawsuit had previously been dismissed for lack of evidence that North Korea had in fact tortured and killed Mr. Kim. But an appeals court overturned that ruling in December, saying that evidence of Pyongyang’s involvement in the kidnapping, along with testimony from expert witnesses about widespread torture in North Korean prison camps, were enough for the family to claim damages.
The ruling last week, by Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts, ordered North Korea to pay $300 million in punitive damages, as well as $15 million each to Mr. Kim’s brother, Yong-seok Kim, and his son, Han Kim. “North Korea has caused irreparable emotional and psychological harm to the Kims,” the judge said in his ruling.
Mr. Kim’s relatives were not available for comment; Shurat HaDin said they “feel that justice has been served but still feel the great loss” of Mr. Kim.
Do Hee-youn, head of the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, based in Seoul, said organizations like his had watched the Kims’ case closely. “This verdict could help trigger a floodgate of lawsuits against the North Korean government worldwide, especially from the families of Japanese whose members have been kidnapped to North Korea,” Mr. Do said. North Korea has admitted kidnapping Japanese citizens in the past, an issue that still haunts Japan’s dealings with Pyongyang.
But Kim Mi-young, director of the Transitional Justice Mission, which studies North Korean human rights violations from its base in Seoul, said the ruling had essentially “symbolic” value, at least for now, to those seeking to put pressure on Pyongyang over its abuses.
“I am highly skeptical about how much it can be enforced,” said Ms. Kim, a lawyer who specializes in international human rights law.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the ruling should be seen as “yet another strand in an expanding web of U.N. resolutions, legal decisions and monitoring arrangements designed to box North Korea in and restrict its actions until it answers for its rights crimes.”
Mr. Kim, then 52, was getting into a taxi in Yanji, a Chinese town near the North Korean border, in January 2000 when unidentified men jumped in after him and the car sped away. The apparent kidnapping made headlines in South Korea at the time, but few clues to his disappearance emerged.
That began to change in 2004, when Chung Kwang-il, a North Korean defector, arrived in South Korea. Mr. Chung said he had seen Mr. Kim in an underground cell at the Ministry of State Security office in Hoeryong, a North Korean town across the border from Yanji, soon after his abduction.
Soon after Mr. Chung escaped to South Korea in 2004, he said, he learned from his contacts in China that one of Mr. Kim’s kidnappers, Liu Yong-hua, an ethnic Korean, had fled to South Korea to avoid questions from the Chinese police about the abduction. Mr. Chung notified the South Korean authorities, and Mr. Liu was soon arrested.
Mr. Liu was recently repatriated to China after completing a 10-year prison term.