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October 3, 2010 – Reporting from Seoul — 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.