When the survivors of the U.S.S. Pueblo, joined by the widow of their captain, sued North Korea for the horrific torture they endured in 1968, the real question wasn’t whether they were entitled to compensation, it was whether they could ever collect any. North Korea, as it has done with all of the other suits against it in U.S. federal courts, refused to respond to the suit after being duly served at its U.N. mission. Consequently, the court entered a $68 million judgment for the plaintiffs (by contrast, North Korea has been litigious in the British courts).
The Hawaiian Good Luck Sign
I’ve periodically reviewed the public court records regarding each of these cases. My most recent review of the docket of Massie v. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea today indicates that Richard Streeter, who represents the Pueblo plaintiffs, is now poring through a trove of information turned over by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, about North Korean assets within American jurisdiction. This information is largely a matter of speculation to those of us whose access is limited to open-source information. Here, OFAC claims that public disclosure would be prohibited by the Trade Secrets Act. But as it has done in similar previous cases, OFAC agreed to share information about blocked North Korean assets with Streeter, subject to a protective order. Here’s some text from OFAC’s unopposed motion for that protective order:
OFAC has agreed to provide plaintiffs with certain information responsive to the subpoena, pursuant to the terms of the attached proposed protective order.1 Without a protective order, the release of this information might violate the Trade Secrets Act (“TSA”), 18 U.S.C. § 1905, which imposes criminal penalties for the disclosure of information falling within its terms without appropriate authorization of law. Thus, while OFAC does not waive any right, privilege, or immunity to which it may be entitled with respect to any further response, it respectfully requests that, in light of the prohibitions of the Trade Secrets Act, the Court authorize its disclosure of information responsive to plaintiffs’ subpoena via the attached proposed protective order.2
OFAC explains why the information must remain protected from public disclosure:
Here, the information OFAC is willing to disclose was provided to it pursuant to 31 C.F.R. § 501.603, which requires financial institutions and other holders of blocked property to file reports with OFAC within ten business days of 4 Case 1:06-cv-00749-HHK Document 16 Filed 10/05/09 Page 4 of 6 the blocking of the property, as well as annually. The requirement is “mandatory,” see id., and “[r]eports filed are regarded as privileged and confidential. Id. subsection (a). In the absence of a protective order, disclosure of information submitted to OFAC under § 501.603 would adversely affect OFAC’s administration of its programs relating to terrorist financing and economic sanctions, which depends in large part on OFAC’s ability to maintain the confidentiality of the information submitted to it.
This implies, but doesn’t necessarily mean, that there are assets within OFAC’s reach to satisfy the judgment. Note also that according to public court records, Streeter filed a writ of garnishment, presumably for something. This does not mean, however, that whatever assets there may be are subject to attachment. In fact, OFAC has carefully reserved its position on whether any blocked assets are subject to attachment under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. One hopes that the government of this country will not frustrate the pursuit of justice by those who suffered so much to defend that same country. With Treasury now revitalizing its own hunt for North Korean assets to block, the various plaintiffs with claims against North Korea may have access to more attachable assets.
While this is an interesting glimpse at Streeter’s strategy, we’ll have to wait and see whether he manages to collect any of Kim Jong Il’s yacht money. Meanwhile, this is one more complication and disincentive for anyone contemplating new business transactions with Kim Jong Il’s regime.
Related: The Calderon-Cardona plaintiffs, who recently won that massive $378 million judgment against North Korea, filed a similar protective order, as agreed with OFAC, just last week. The court has also permitted them to register their judgment in other jurisdictions, noting cryptically that although the protective order prevents them from disclosing where the North Korean assets are, they aren’t within the District of Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, the family of the Rev. Kim Dong Shik has also won a default against North Korea. Even so, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act requires a plaintiff to prove the liability of the defendant to the court’s satisfaction. No hearing date has been set, but it looks like it could happen this month.