Still, the issue is not going to go away, even though South Korea has made far less of a fuss about the problem than Japan has about a few dozen citizens kidnapped from its beaches about 30 years ago. North Korea is holding far more South Koreans than Japanese, upwards of 500 not counting the 80,000 sent to the North during the Korean War and forced to serve the regime either as soldiers or laborers or both.
One reason the issue won’t die is the brazen nature of some of the abductions. Most of those held since the Korean War have been fishermen whose boats strayed into North Korean waters, but 11 were crew members or passengers of a South Korean passenger plane that was hijacked and flown to North Korea in December 1969.
Indeed, said Ahn, “The problem of South Korean citizens abducted by North Korea is being slowly forgotten amidst coldness and indifference.”
Nothing much is really changing, despite such statements, but activists and relatives are making more noise than usual as North and South Korean negotiators talk about talks. No matter how far apart they may appear, the sense is six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons could pick up again after perhaps some more yakking by American and North Korean diplomats in New York, a few more meetings in Beijing between the North and South Korean negotiators and pressure from North Korea’s benefactor, China.
It’s a totally safe bet that, when six-party talks are finally held for the first time since December 2008, neither the Americans nor the South Koreans will think of asking the North Koreans about the abductions. They know very well the North Koreans would threaten to walk out of the talks, and chances of renewing moves toward reconciliation, severely blunted since the conservative Lee Myung-Bak’s inauguration as president in February 2008, would again be nil.
Why the plane was hijacked is a mystery, but it seems the hijacker was a North Korean espionage agent who had boarded the plane on a routine flight from the South Korean east coast city of Gangneung to Seoul. North Korea, in response to pleas from South Korea and the Red Cross, promised to return all passengers and crew members but sent only 39 passengers back while holding on to four crew members and seven passengers.
Hwang In-Chul, the son of a television producer whom the North Koreans decided to hold after he “apparently denounced communism”, described his feelings at a forum here of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. He intermingled his personal responses with sweeping criticism of South Korean authorities for their reluctance to press the case.
“How would you feel if, in addition to the agony you experience after having lost one of your family members, you had to also confront the prejudice directed at you from your own society and country,” he asked. “How would you feel if your government, who constantly claims to uphold humanitarianism, fails to provide any realistic solution to this problem?”
Hwang contrasted the South Korean position with that of Japan — an example that Korean officials prefer to ignore. Unlike his own government, he said, “the Japanese government recognizes the case of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals as a violation of its sovereignty, actively brings their citizens back, and continuously makes an effort to solve this problem.”
Nearly 42 years after the hijacking, Hwang blames his own government almost as much as the North Koreans for the suffering he and others have had to endure.
“North Korea is the primary offender to us, the perpetrator of international crimes,” he concedes, but “the lukewarm response” of South Korea “is not only an act of neglect to my father, a victim of international crime, but also an inhumane acquiescence to and [expression of] sympathy with North Korea’s international crime.”
Now, said Hwang, “It must be made clear that the Korean government may be the secondary offender as well if it continues to waste time with inactive policies.”
Convincing though this kind of appeal may sound, it gains little traction in a society that clearly views the hijacking of the YS-11 as very old news and isn’t much interested either in periodic laments by bereaved wives and children of fishermen. Those stories may make occasional headlines on inside pages, but fade away while the media focuses on more immediate political and economic news intermingled perhaps with reports on North Korea.
The anguish of the families, though, keeps the story from dying.
Benjamin Yoon, chairman of the Citizens’ Alliance, summarized their problems. “Although family members were victims,” he said, “they were kept under tight surveillance and control by the South Korean government”. Incredibly, he added, “The stigma attached to the ‘Missing Person Household’ label,” as recorded on school records and other documents, condemned “young children of such families to endure all forms of societal prejudice and institutional discrimination.”
Yoon distinguished between the cases of the abductees and those of millions of families divided by the Korean War. In response to suggestions for classifying the issue “under the larger umbrella of the ‘separated families”, he said, “the abductions are unsettled crimes rather than the unfortunate consequences of the division in the Korean peninsula” and “an ongoing problem”.
For their part, the North Koreans have repeatedly, consistently denied forcibly holding anyone. Everyone still in the North, they say, has chosen to stay “voluntarily”.
How to get South Korea to crusade on behalf of the abductees is almost as difficult as wringing concessions from the North.
“South Korean government’s attitude, even when taking into account the reality of the relationship between North and South Korea, is a point of concern,” said Park Jung-Won, a law professor at Kookmin Umniversity. “An effective approach must be sought. This will naturally draw the public’s attention and support.”
Few would question the sadness and injustice of it all, but the real problem is who’s listening and who really cares.