A US court has awarded $2.3 billion in damages to several crew members of the USS Pueblo and their surviving families, 50 years after North Korea seized the American naval vessel and took its crew hostage.
More than 100 crew members and their relatives filed a suit against North Korea in February 2018 in a federal court under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows victims to sue state sponsors of terrorism for torture, hostage-taking, personal injury or death.
The award is among the largest sums ever handed out in a state-sponsored terrorism case, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs said in a statement Thursday.
Mark Bravin, the lead attorneys for the victims, called the judgment a “tremendous result.”
“I think all of the plaintiffs will be very, very happy,” said Bravin, who started working on the case about six years ago. “It has been a long process.”
The plaintiffs were allowed to sue after former US President Donald Trump named North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in 2017, reopening the window to litigation against Pyongyang under the 1976 Act. North Korea had been removed from the list in 2008 by then-President George W Bush.
However, it remains unclear how the damages could be recovered from North Korea.
Bravin said that because of the ruling, the plaintiffs will be able to successfully apply for an award from the Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act, a fund set up by Congress to support victims of terrorism.
Pyongyang was not represented in the case and has long accused the Pueblo and its crew of illegally spying in North Korean territorial waters when it was captured.
The Pueblo was captured by North Korea while it was in international waters off the coast of the Korean Peninsula on January 23, 1968. After a tense standoff in which they desperately radioed for assistance that never came, the 83 crew members were captured and then transported to the North Korean port of Wonsan. One sailor was killed in the incident.
The group was later transferred to a detention center near Pyongyang, where they were held for 11 months. Survivors said they were beaten and tortured by their captors.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula ratcheted up to the extent that US generals drew up a potential nuclear strike plan.
Washington eventually opened negotiations with Pyongyang at the so-called Panmunjom peace village, on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and, after months of talks, the US agreed to sign a North Korean-drafted apology. The men were then released across the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
The Pueblo is technically still a commissioned ship in the US Navy, but since 2013 North Korea has used it as a tourist attraction and propaganda museum in Pyongyang.