Israeli law center wants to seize North Korean ship over pastor abduction case

The Israeli legal organization Shurat HaDin is pursuing a North Korean ship to fulfill a judgment against North Korea for the kidnapping and killing of a Christian pastor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Shurat HaDin law center, a Tel Aviv-based organization run by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner that typically engages in international legal battles on behalf of victims of terrorism and combats efforts to delegitimize Israel, has taken on North Korea.

Back in April, the legal organization won a $330 million U.S. District Court judgment over the abduction of a South Korean Christian pastor and his presumed torture and murder in North Korea. Now, the center is going after North Korean assets to fulfill the judgment—namely Mu Du Bong, a North Korean cargo ship that accidentally ran aground off Mexico last July.

The story began 15 years ago, when pastor Kim Dong-shik was abducted in China, leading his loved ones to suspect North Korea of orchestrating the kidnaping because its government is known for its dislike of clergymen who proselytize to North Korean refugees in China.

There was no actual evidence of North Korean involvement until 2005, when a Chinese man on trial in South Korea confessed to abducting Kim and other men in China for North Korea's secret police. Subsequently, Shurat Hadin, representing Kim's son and brother, won the lawsuit against North Korea in a U.S. court.

“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 upon the court’s ruling.

The lawsuit was made possible by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows foreign states to be sued in U.S. courts if those countries are listed as state sponsors of terrorism. Back in 2010, Shurat HaDin also won $378 million in a U.S. Court against North Korea over the killing of U.S. citizens in an Israeli airport in 1982. However, it was never able to collect on that judgment.

Since the North Korean government has never admitted involvement in Kim's kidnapping and presumed killing, and it is unlikely to respond to the ruling or offer any kind of compensation in this case as in previous cases, Shurat HaDin has been combing for North Korean assets it can pursue in order to fulfill the legal judgment, especially the Mu Du Bong.

Since it ran aground, the ship has been held in Mexico on the orders of experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program because the ship's North Korean parent company, Ocean Maritime Management Co., has been hit with sanctions ever since another one of its ships was discovered carrying two Cuban fighting jets, a missile, and live munitions.

But seizing the ship for the U.S. court judgment is going to require that Mexico legally recognizes the judgment, and so far its courts have refused to hear Shurat Hadin's request. The organization is currently appealing this. If the appeal passes, Shurat HaDin is planning to sell the ship to the highest bidder and use the proceeds to pay Kim's family.

"There are so few North Korean assets around the world that an opportunity like this, to seize the boat, should not be allowed to simply slip away out of fear of North Korea or other political consideration," Darshan-Leitner told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Occasionally, the U.S. government can also interfere with collecting judgments in such cases due to perceived or actual conflicts with other political goals, and it is not clear what the U.S. government position is on this case. But the U.N. is unlikely to object.

"I think the Security Council will be happy if the ship does not go back to North Korean hands," Mexican lawyer Alberto Mansur, who helped with the court filing, said.

Posted on August 5, 2015 .