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Families struggle to recover remains of South Korean kidnapping victims

Kim Ji Seung  |  2018-01-19 16:39
Choi Sung Yong (left) serves as president of the Abductees' Family Union. In 1967, Choi was 15 years old when his fathers ship was seized by North Korea while sailing in the coastal waters of South Koreas Yeonpyeong Island. There were eight people aboard the ship that day, including Chois father. Only five of the original eight returned. It has been over 50 years since that day, and despite his tireless efforts, Choi still has no idea if his father is even alive.   

Daily NK recently sat down for an interview with Choi. 

Daily NK (DNK): What were the circumstances that led to your father being unable to return home?

Choi Sung Yong (Choi): My father was captain of the S.S. Pukjin and was assigned to an unofficial unit of General MacArthurs Far East Command during the Korean War. I remember hearing that my father was a special forces soldier when I was young. From the perspective of the North Koreans, he was a traitor. North Koreas laws state that the property of traitors is subject to confiscation. My father was seized and sent to a Peoples Court and ordered to surrender his vessel.    

My mother tried to manage our remaining two ships, but she didnt have enough experience to run the business, so it went bankrupt. My father was brought up on charges of being a leftist element, and since then we havent been able to confirm whether he is alive or dead. 

We think that he has probably passed away by now, but weve not received an official notification from the North Korean government. 

DNK: Can you tell us about your involvement in the movement to try to get post-war kidnapping victims repatriated back to the South? 

My mothers influence loomed large. She told me, Ill provide you with some financial support. Even if you can only save one person, go and do it. My mom learned from the news about the repatriation back to North Korea of Lee In-mo, a North Korean who was held in a South Korean jail for 34 years. Seeing that, she said to me, Even if you can only get his remains, get your father back here.

On April 5, 1993, Lee In-mo walked across the border back into North Korea. It was the beginning of the repatriation movement at that time, and there were crowds of police officers present as he crossed over at the Panmunjom Truce Village between North and South Korea. I was there too with a sign advocating for the return of kidnapping victims. A KATUSA [Korean Augmentation to the United States Army] soldier gave me words of encouragement. The first movement wasnt really being reported on by the press, but that soldiers kind words gave me strength.      

DNK: Have you ever been able to check on the status of your father? 

My mom heard that he would be back in three months time, so she took my big brother and went to Incheon harbor to wait to greet him. She was so disappointed when he didnt come. Eight people were abducted, and only five were able to return. One was arrested for espionage. It was hard to get any additional information after that. 

Believing that he had probably passed away, we worked very hard to recover his ashes. Someone bought bone fragments and said they were my fathers but it was a lie. Someone brought us his dog tags from his war days, demanding a lot of money in exchange for them. But these turned out to be fakes as well. We fell for a lot of scams. Through this process, we learned a lot about POWs and victims of abduction.  

DNK: How were the ashes of POWs repatriated back to the South? 

Choi: The first ashes brought back to the South were recovered by a family from Cheongdo, North Gyeongsang Province. They wanted to bury him in his hometown, so they made the request. The chances were high that theyd get discovered, so they ended up burying him somewhere in China. 

The South Korean government negotiated with the North to get the ashes of its war dead back. It worked together with the Chinese government, but in the end said that it would be difficult. So we continued to protest and MBC (SK media organization) picked up on it. After appearing on a major news network, the situation changed. The government came with the military band, honor guard, and a Korean flag to give us respectful treatment. When the first batch of POW ashes came through Incheon Airport, our spirits were high. The ashes were not carried through the border, but were sent by plane through a third country. In total, there were eight additional such shipments of ashes.    

DNK: What was the hardest aspect of advocating for the return of the kidnapping victims? 

Choi: Even though it was an issue that directly impacted our citizens safety, it was hard to get people interested. I wish we had received just a small fraction of the attention that the Sewol Ferry incident received. Five students were abducted in 1978 and brought to North Korea, just like my father. North Korean spies came down and kidnapped those five students, who were on a school field trip. The North Koreans have also taken whole airplanes hostage, abducting South Koreans while abroad, as well as many fisherman. Despite these incidents, it has been hard to generate social awareness of the issue.    

Recently, North Korea detained a fishing vessel with seven South Koreans and three Vietnamese crew for a week before releasing it. Many thoughts crossed through my head as I watched this unfold. First, I wished that people could understand how hard this is for the families of the victims. President Roh Moo-hyun made a special law concerning victims of abduction and met with them face to face multiple times. I held high expectations that the conservative government that held the presidency in South Korea for ten years would make some progress on the issue. But nothing happened. This is ultimately a bipartisan issue that everyone, regardless of their political leaning, should get behind. Countries should look after their citizens. In this spirit, I wish we could simply find out if the victims are alive or dead.    
DNK: They say that the North Korean prisoner who returned to the North received compensation. 

Choi: Thats correct. They were given a good reception back home. During the Sunshine Policy-era [during which time the South pursued engagement with the North], Kim Jong Il was able to secure the return of 63 prisoners. They were given the best apartments in Pyongyang and Mercedes Benz cars. They were treated as national heroes. On the other hand, our government hasnt even been able to tell the families of POWs and kidnapping victims whether their loved ones are alive. These families are under a lot of stress. They have to struggle to make a living. I think that if the president merely stopped to have one meal with one of these families and have a picture taken, the North would not be able to ignore us to the extent it does now.  

DNK: Has the South Korean government ever demanded the return of the POWs and kidnapping victims? 

The Lee In Mo incident happened in 1993, during the Kim Yong Sam presidency. During the Kim Dae Jung presidency on September 3, 2002, 63 North Korean prisoners were released and we didnt even get one POW or abduction victim in return. I wish we had arranged to bring home some of our victims at that time. 

Because of this, I protested against the arrangement. At the protests, I was beaten. The June 15th Summit between North and South in 2007 involved some effort to resolve the separated families problem. But kidnapping victims and POWs were excluded from the conversation. I wanted to ask the two presidents who were involved in the human rights movement how they think they should address the families of these victims. It was a good chance to trade Northern prisoners for Southern POWs and kidnapping victims. We missed that opportunity. After that, I worked even harder to advocate for these victims.

DNK: How about the current president? 

After the Jaechon fire [which killed 29 people and injured 36 on December 21, 2017], President Moon Jae In said he would work to protect citizens safety and property. I think that he should apply that same sort of logic to the kidnapping victims. When President Roh Moo Hyun went to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il, Moon Jae In was working in his administration. At that time, I fasted in front of the Blue House [presidential residence]. And then President Roh declared that by the end of his term, he would pass a special law related to the kidnapping victims. He apologized to the families of the victims because he was never able to determine if their family members were alive or dead in the North. Im waiting for this sort of action.    

DNK: Youve been involved in this movement for so long that youve experienced all three generations of the Kim family leadership. Do you have any reflections? 

The relationship between a father and his children is a union made in heaven. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un have all made a mockery of that connection. Its been fifty years, and North Korea still wont tell me if my father is alive or not. I tried to offer lots of money but was unable to even get his ashes back. Eventually I heard news that my father has been executed. I am resentful towards the Kim family, who perpetrated this humiliation on my father. 

If North Korea refuses to inform us about the living status of the POWs and kidnapping victims, then our government should demand it. We dont know whether these 516 individuals are alive or dead. But if they are, we want to at least know when they have passed away. Through the work of the Ministry of Unification and the Korean Red Cross, Id like to find out the dates that the 7 people who went missing passed away. 

DNK: Do you think that, at this point, it is unrealistic to expect that it will be possible to talk to the North Koreans to solve the kidnapping problem? 

Realistically, I think that will be hard. But I think that we absolutely must do what we have to do. The mother of Lee Min Gyo, one of the students kidnapped on Hong Island in 1978, told successive presidents, My wish is that my Min Gyo is alive and well. Thats how bad things are. She should be asking to see her son one more time. This is a matter that concerns our countrys citizens, so I hope the president will not forget about it. And I wish they would put in the effort to simply find out if they are alive or dead. 

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