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Court awards $2.3 billion to USS Pueblo crew, more than 50 years after they were held in North Korea

The USS Pueblo has been held by the North Koreans since they attacked and captured the naval intelligence ship along with 82 sailors on Jan. 23, 1968.

U.S. NAVY

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 26, 2021

A federal court has awarded $2.3 billion to several crewmembers and families of the USS Pueblo, a Navy ship taken hostage by North Korea more than 50 years ago.

Split evenly for compensatory and punitive damages, the amount is among the largest ever awarded in a state-sponsored terrorism case, according to Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, the Washington-based law firm that filed the case three years ago on behalf of 61 crew members and 110 family members in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

"Even though we didn't expect anything, it is a relief to be recognized for what we went through. Maybe now it is finally settled, and we can move forward," said Don Peppard, a surviving crew member and president of the USS Pueblo Veteran's Association. He served as a chief cryptologic technician on the ship.

Thursday’s announcement follows a 2019 default judgment that held North Korea liable for taking the crew hostage in 1968.

North Korean warships and fighter aircraft surrounded and fired upon the Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968, during an intelligence-gathering mission in international waters off the Korean Peninsula. One crew member was killed, and the remaining 82 members — consisting of sailors, Marines and civilians — were held hostage by North Korea for 11 months until the United States negotiated their release.

The plaintiffs of lawsuit sought damages for torture, hostage-taking, and personal injuries that they suffered as a result, according to the law firm.

Catherine Soto, a daughter of crew member Herman Baldridge, said her whole family suffered alongside her father as a result of his captivity. Baldridge, who was a hospital corpsman in the service, died in November at 89 years old.

"I wish he was still here for me to tell him that justice is served, and this is finally over," she said.

The case was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act's terrorism exception, the law firm said. This exception allows victims to sue a state sponsor of terrorism for torture, hostage-taking, personal injury or death resulting from its actions or its material support for such actions.

Former President Donald Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on Nov. 20, 2017, shortly after a visit to South Korea. During a speech on that trip, Trump highlighted the USS Pueblo incident as part of North Korea's history of terrorist acts.

Though the U.S. court cannot compel North Korea to pay the damages, the ruling does allow for plaintiffs to apply for compensation from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, a Justice Department fund for certain Americans who were injured in acts of international state-sponsored terrorism.

"We are thrilled to finally have our clients recognized by the U.S. government for the pain and suffering they endured in 1968 and the impact it has had on them and their families since then," said Mark Bravin, lead attorney.

He said the plaintiffs have already been submitted to the fund, which is expected to conduct its next round of payouts in 2022.

The fund accumulates money through fines and penalties paid by companies that are found doing business with state sponsors of terrorism. When the account reaches more than $100 million, it issues payments.

The USS Pueblo remains moored in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and is open to the public as a museum. It was never decommissioned and is the only U.S. naval vessel in captivity.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori
 

A haggard-looking Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, just released from North Korea after 11 months in captivity, waves as he arrives for a press conference in the NCO Club at the U.S. advance camp near Panmunjom.
PETE VEGELL/STARS AND STRIPES