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US court orders NK to pay $2.3b in damages to USS Pueblo crew

This undated Yonhap file photo, released by the Korean Central News Agency, shows the USS Pueblo spy ship being displayed along the Daedong River in Pyongyang for anti-American propaganda purposes. North Korea seized the 906-ton ship and its 83-strong crew in January 1968. (Yonhap)
This undated Yonhap file photo, released by the Korean Central News Agency, shows the USS Pueblo spy ship being displayed along the Daedong River in Pyongyang for anti-American propaganda purposes. North Korea seized the 906-ton ship and its 83-strong crew in January 1968. (Yonhap)
A US federal court ordered North Korea to pay over $2.3 billion in damages to the crew and their families of the naval spy ship USS Pueblo, for torturing them for 11 months upon capturing the vessel in 1968 in the East Sea.

It is the most in damages a US court has ordered North Korea to pay, raising the chances of further US actions to seize North Korea-related assets overseas in a bid to collect damages from the destitute country.

The Washington court said in its decision handed down on Feb. 16 that North Korea owes $1.15 billion in compensatory damages to the 49 surviving crew members, their 90 family members and 31 family members of those who are now deceased for the confinement and suffering, and doubled that amount for punitive damages.

It said many of the 83 crew on the Pueblo, one of whom was killed by the North Koreans when they seized the ship on Jan. 23, 1968, were mentally and physically abused.

The Pueblo was captured by the North Korean Navy after it was threatened by four patrol boats and two MiG-21 fighters about 40 kilometers from the North Korean coast.

North Korea released the 82 crew and the remains of the dead crew member in December that year, only after the US signed a statement apologizing for violating its territorial waters.

In February 2018, the survivors and families of those since deceased filed a class action suit against North Korea after the US Congress passed an exception in 2016 to a law that gives foreign governments broad immunity from suits in US courts.

Under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a foreign government can be sued in US courts if it has been designated a state sponsor of international terrorism.

The Trump administration officially declared North Korea a sponsor of terror in November 2017, nine years after it was removed from the list in 2008 by then-US President George W. Bush.

The court said in October 2019 that North Korea is responsible for all of the claims by the plaintiffs, adding that it will issue the sentencing after working out the amount of damages.

Alan Balaran, the US government-appointed “special master” in the case to decide how damages were to be apportioned, said most crew suffered long-lasting aftereffects, both psychological and physical.

“As a result of the barbarity inflicted by the North Koreans, almost all required medical and/or psychiatric intervention,” Balaran wrote.

“Many have undergone invasive surgical procedures to ameliorate the physical damage resulting from the relentless torture they underwent as prisoners.”

Several have attempted to numb their pain through alcohol and drugs, and most have seen their domestic or professional lives deteriorate, Balaran wrote, adding that a few have contemplated suicide.

North Korea did not officially respond to the lawsuit, according to Voice of America.

In December 2008, a US court ordered North Korea to pay $65 million in damages to four crew members of the Pueblo in a suit they filed.

In December 2018, a US court ruled that North Korea must pay $51.1 million to the bereaved family of Otto Warmbier, who was released in a vegetative state after imprisonment in North Korea. He died days after he was repatriated in June 2017.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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