Year after year, Western containment and appeasement policy in North Korea has failed. North Korea is undaunted by threats, defiantly spreading terror throughout the world, while using the intimidation of nuclear war to sustain itself by holding its terrified neighbors to ransom.
Today, Kim Jong-un heads a regime that is essentially a familial cult, where the only things that matter are personal wealth and self-preservation, remaining indifferent as its people choke and starve under its oppression. It is a state where its own population is dispensable, hostages to a tyrant who like his father and grandfather before him cares not for North Koreans but only for stroking his own ego and despotic tendencies.
The reach of Pyongyang’s criminality is long, extending well past its own borders. In 2009, civil action in the United States district court in Washington, DC was brought against North Korea on behalf of the family of an illegally abducted Christian missionary. Reverend Kim Dong-shik, had family in Illinois and was a permanent resident of the United States, when he was kidnapped in January 2000 by North Korean intelligence agents in northeastern China. He had been assisting on the Korean border, part of an Underground Railroad network, that aided those trying to flee their country. He was forcefully kidnapped and transported to a camp deep inside North Korea, reserved for political prisoners. Inside the penal colony, he was cruelly tortured and eventually starved to death. Neither his fate nor the whereabouts of his remains were ever formally made known to his family.
Initially, there was very little evidence for the family to go by as there was no definitive proof other than witnesses to his abduction in China, that Rev. Kim had been taken cross-border into North Korea. Family and friends were well aware that Pyongyang despised human rights activists like the priest, who provided aid to fleeing Koreans, but they still lacked any solid admissible proof. The first breakthrough finally came in 2005, when a Chinese citizen was placed on trial in South Korea and confessed to assisting in kidnapping Rev. Kim and 17 other people from China on behalf of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security. The defendant testified in court that the missionary had been sent to a camp for political prisoners.
Having placed Rev. Kim in a North Korean prison, however, was not sufficient to win our case, as the family’s attorneys we still needed to prove he was murdered by his captors. The district court refused to accept our arguments that an individual seized by agents of a regime like North Korean, with its long documented record of civil rights violations, and never heard from again, must be assumed to be dead. Absurd as it seemed, we had no body, and the court ruled that without one, we couldn’t prove the statutory requirement that North Korea had engaged in an extrajudicial killing. The court apologetically dismissed the Kim family’s case.
It was on appeal, however, that they finally received a measure of justice and closure. In 2015, more than fifteen years after the abduction the Washington, DC Circuit Court noted the difficulties we were facing, accepted our arguments and in a historic decision ruled that: “requiring the Kims to prove exactly what happened to the Reverend and when, would defeat the [law’s] very purpose: … to compensate the victims of terrorism, and in so doing to punish foreign states who have committed or sponsored such acts and deter them from doing so in the future.” Moreover, the court stated that “this is especially true in cases of forced disappearance, like this one, where direct evidence of subsequent torture and execution will, by definition, almost always be unavailable, even though indirect evidence may be overwhelming.” North Korea, with its documented history of abductions, was in the best position to state what had happened to Rev. Kim, and if it had evidence to establish his whereabouts, the burden was now on the rogue regime to prove he was still alive.
The Kim family was awarded $330 million against the North Korean government, which today remains largely unpaid.
This past April, Congress voted by a majority of 398-3, to restore North Korea to the list of designated terrorist sponsoring states. The bill will now be taken up by the Senate. If it passes, the State Department will be compelled to determine and certify whether North Korea is an international supporter of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Such a finding would allow the United States and its allies to impose additional sanctions on this rogue regime and try to financially impose the rule of law on Pyongyang. We have had 9 years since North Korea was removed from the list and the world is far the worse for it. The carrot has failed and we mustn’t be too afraid to apply the stick.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is a civil rights attorney who represents terrorist victims against North Korea.