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Families despair at Seoul’s silence on North Korea abductions

  • Tue, 17 Apr 2018 09:12
Choi Sung-ryong holds a shaman ritual at sea to pray for the safe return of abductees held in North Korea © Choi Sung-ryong

Choi Sung-ryong was 15 years old when his father went fishing off South Korea’s west coast and never returned. 

He later discovered that his father had been abducted by North Korean agents and spirited across the maritime border. He was held for three years before being publicly executed.

Today Mr Choi, 65, is South Korea’s most vocal campaigner on an issue that has been all but forgotten by successive governments in Seoul: the fate of more than 500 citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea and never allowed to return.

In contrast with Japan, which regularly raises the matter of its dozen or so citizens held in the north, South Korea has remained almost silent despite estimates that about 100 such detainees are still alive today.

“For years, the government has ignored the issue and let North Korea get away with it,” said Mr Choi. “This is a matter of people’s life and death.”

Mr Choi hopes Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, will raise the subject when he meets Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, this month for a landmark summit.

But expectations are not high. This month, Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, said human rights would not be discussed at the meeting, which will focus on denuclearising North Korea

“These abductees have been pretty much forgotten,” said Ben Forney, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of a report on the issue.

“It shows that the victims of the North Korean regime are not just North Koreans but also South Koreans.”

Shinzo Abe, right, meets families of Japanese abducted by North Korea. Critics say South Korea has no such engagement with its citizens © EPA

Kidnappings have been part of Pyongyang’s playbook for decades. Throughout the 1960s, Kim Il Sung, then leader, abducted hundreds of South Koreans as human capital to boost the north’s economy.

The problem persisted through the leadership of Kim Jong Il, who sent operatives worldwide, from Paris to Karachi, to snatch a variety of South Korean skilled professionals. 

Among them were Choi Eun-hee, the actress, and Shin Sang-Ok, her husband director, who were taken from a beach in Hong Kong to Pyongyang and forced to produce propaganda films for the regime.

Today the kidnappings remain an issue although the scope of North Korea’s operations has been reduced. The focus now is stamping out religious figures and human rights activists in the border region with China.

“Just as North Korea became increasingly reliant on China to support its economy, it also looked to China as the source of new South Korean abductees,” said Mr Forney. 

Kim Ae-ran, Choi Sung-ryong's mother, with a photo of her husband, a fisherman who was abducted and executed by North Korea © Choi Sung-ryong

In May 2016, the foreign affairs ministry in Seoul warned tour agencies about the risks of abductions to South Korean citizens in north-east China. 

Since the end of the Korean war, 3,835 South Koreans have been kidnapped by the north; of those 3,319 were allowed to return or managed to escape, according to the report by the Asan Institute, a think-tank.

However, there still remain 516 individuals whose fate in North Korea is unknown.

“The families of these abductees at least want to know what happened — whether they are alive or dead,” said Kim Kyu-ho, a pastor who runs a group to help abductees.

“Other countries, including the US and Japan, have made great efforts to bring their citizens back. It is a different story from the South Korean government,” he added.

About 17 Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s and forced to teach Japanese language and culture to the regime’s spies.

Tokyo never misses an opportunity to raise the fate of these victims. Returning the abductees to Japan is a signature issue for Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.

When Donald Trump visited Japan last year, Mr Abe introduced him to the families of the victims. Mr Abe said he would remind the US president of their plight at a meeting in Washington this month.

South Korea’s unification ministry said the “government has been continuously pressing North Korea to resolve the abductee issue” and was “working to confirm whether abductees are alive or not”.

Seoul has traditionally focused on reuniting families divided by the Korean war. It has also successfully organised at least one temporary reunion for abduction victims and their families. 

But the families of those kidnapped remain unconvinced. “The government only thinks about the upcoming summit meeting [with Kim Jong Un] and doesn’t want to annoy the north,” added Mr Choi. 

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