[OUTLOOK]One woman’s lonely battleOctober 26 was the 60th birthday of Choi Jong-seok, a fisherman kidnapped by North Korea. His daughter, Choi Woo-young, who lives in the South, wrote a letter to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, through an advertisement in a daily media outlet. She wrote, “I wish to bring my father home and prepare a feast for his 60th birthday, but if it is not possible, I’d appreciate it if someone there could prepare one for him.”
Ms. Choi described steamed rice; raw fish; soju, a vodka-like grain spirit; and spicy fish soup as his favorites. How did Mr. Choi spend his birthday? Did he have a bottle of soju with raw fish and spicy fish soup as his daughter wished?
Two days before his 60th birthday, unconverted long-term pro-North Korean prisoners enjoyed a special feast hosted by a civic group. The feast was to celebrate the 80th birthday of old prisoners. Among them, 28 are waiting to become the second group to be repatriated. Ms. Choi is so envious of them that she just wept.
It was Jan. 15, 1987 when the Dong-jin, a fishing boat, was seized by North Korea off Baekryeong island in the Yellow Sea. North Korea, which said it would send the 18 fishermen on the boat home soon after an investigation, has detained them now for 18 years.
Ms. Choi, a first-year high school student at that time, is now 35 years old. She says, “My heart aches whenever I think of my father.” She heard news about her father in North Korea for the first time in 1998. While reading a feature article on North Korean political prison camps, she discovered her father’s name on the list of 22 abducted South Koreans among the inmates. She was sure that it was her father because the abduction year on the list was the same as the year her father was kidnapped.
A few times since then she has heard “tips” about her father’s situation from relevant government officials. They said, “He is said to have come out of a political prison camp,” and, “He said he wanted to come to South Korea.” Recently, they said, “He is said to be in critical condition.” This is why Ms. Choi feels more impatient. But the government authorities she has contacted countless times have never given her an official reply. Is it really true that he is still alive?
Until a few years ago, the fact that one’s family members live in North Korea was considered a “crime” in itself. Particularly in the case of abducted fishermen, because of the possibility of their being brainwashed and dispatched as spies, their families were harassed through surveillance and suspicion. Even now, when inter-Korean exchanges have become active, these people still feel heavy-hearted. These days, they feel a surge of anger because they seem to be treated as stumbling blocks to inter-Korean relations.
In 2000, Ms. Choi founded the Families of the Abducted and Detained in North Korea. She says, “There are more than 20 civic groups that support the repatriation of North Korean spies dispatched to South Korea, but we are the only group that calls for the repatriation of South Koreans abducted to and detained in North Korea.” She feels helpless, asking what is wrong with our country.
“I watched North Korea making tenacious efforts to get unconverted long-term prisoners back, forming close ties with human rights groups in South Korea, and National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il putting the first and foremost priority on the protection of his people in inter-Korean negotiations. I could not help feeling envious of them, thinking that if I were a North Korean, I could have brought my father back by now.” Ms. Choi’s letter to Kim Jong-il touches our heart deeply.
She hung 400 yellow handkerchiefs on pine trees near the Imjin Pavilion on Oct. 23. She got the idea from the movie and song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’round the Old Oak Tree,” which features a wife who hangs a ribbon on an oak tree to show her “unchanged love” to her imprisoned husband. “I wanted to convey my family’s unchanged love to him even if 18 years have passed since he was abducted,” she said.
From the Korean War to the present, 484 South Koreans have been abducted to North Korea and detained there. Our government must bring back 1,030 South Koreans, including 546 prisoners of war, who are detained in North Korea. But what effort have we made for the repatriation of these people? Have we ever even pretended to make an effort? Isn’t Japan carrying out a nationwide campaign to bring back a mere 13 to 15 Japanese people abducted to North Korea? The indifference of our government and society is surprising.
Even if it is belated, our society should gather its strength for the repatriation of these people. I’d like to suggest a campaign to hang yellow handkerchiefs or ribbons from trees, to show our encouragement to Ms. Choi, who wishes for her father’s early return, and to wish for the safe return of 1,030 detainees in North Korea.
Wouldn’t waves of yellow ribbons deliver the message that the Republic of Korea has not forgotten them? This is not a matter of ideology or regime, but a matter of morality and natural law.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin