[OUTLOOK]Tie still more yellow ribbonsI proposed last week, through this very same column space, a campaign to hang yellow handkerchiefs or ribbons on trees, to show support for families of abducted South Koreans detained in North Korea in their demands to bring back their loved ones. Since then, some Christian groups have told me they were starting campaigns and some people presented such specific campaign themes as lining the Freedom Road that leads to Imjin Pavilion near the demilitarized zone with yellow ribbons, or launching a campaign of adorning our chests and cars with them.
In that previous article, I mentioned a total of 1,030 abducted South Koreans currently being detained in North Korea. A group of 484 of them are post-Korean War abductees while 546 were prisoners of war. But I had left out another crucial group, I realized, when a former reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo and a senior of mine asked why I had not mentioned those abducted during the three-year war.
At first, I wondered to what extent a society should be held accountable for wrongs committed during a wartime era. But after learning of the pains of families whose loved ones were taken during the time of war, I realized the mistake I had made.
Fifty-five years later, the pain these families feel is still raw. It’s a pain aggravated by a mix of rancor against North Korea for taking their loved ones and bitterness toward the South Korean government for doing nothing about it. For these families who seek information on or, in some cases, the remains of their loved ones, the Korean War goes on.
The person who pointed out my mistake comes from one such family. His father, Lee Gil-yong, was a sports reporter for the domestic daily, Dong-a Ilbo, and was involved with erasing the Japanese flag from athlete Son Ki-jung’s uniform when he won the marathon at the 1938 Berlin Summer Olympiad while running in a Japanese uniform.
Mr. Lee was arrested by the colonial Japanese authorities and fired from his job. He was later reinstated when Korea was liberated, and went on to write a history of Korean sports for what is now the Korea Sports Council and Korean Olympic Committee.
When war broke out and the North Korean forces captured Seoul, he was whisked away from near his home in Seongbuk-dong on July 17. He has never returned. If he remains alive, he would be 106 years old, as he was 51 years of age when taken away. The last and latest news about Mr. Lee was from the late Hwang Shin-deok ― an abductee who fled North Korea after forcibly being taken to Pyongyang. “I arrived in the North, but I did not see Lee Gil-yong, who was taken away at the same time as me,” he said.
Lee Tae-yong, then a 10-year-old and now 65, remembers his father as a young man, a younger man than he himself is. “We never knew why they took him away. He probably has passed away. We don’t ask for anything; even our hate is gone. All we want is to have his remains returned so we can remember him through a family ritual,” the son, who went on to become a famous sports journalist himself, said.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans are estimated to have been abducted by North Korean authorities during the war. The South Korean government does not have an exact tally nor any idea what became of them afterwards. The families are devastated because the government “does not even bother to find out.” After combing and searching through libraries and old bookstores on their own, the families have unearthed several documents. In a government document published in October 1953, the number of those abducted during the Korean War was estimated at some 80,000, a figure that excluded the dead and the missing. In another government document published by what is now the Ministry of Government Affairs and Home Administration, a total of 17,940 are listed as having been taken to the North. The book “Journalists who failed to come back,” published by the Korean Journalists Club, details the roll-call of 226 journalists who were abducted during the war, the perilous atmosphere at the time of their abduction and the sorrow and anxiety that the families left behind suffer.
But lately, we find our society digs into civilian casualties caused by the U.S. and South Korean forces, while these stories remain buried. Nobody seems to make the effort to look into the abductions or killings committed by the North Korean forces, on the pretext that all of those cases have been confirmed. There are, however, piles of unresolved cases of abducted South Koreans.
Our society demonstrates magnanimity toward the mistakes committed by our enemy during the war and tries very hard to turn a blind eye to civilian sufferings left in their wake.
How are we supposed to understand this remarkable turnabout of things? Surely, we as a society need to investigate and restore dignity to those who had suffered at the hands of friendly forces. But should we not make the same effort for the victims who suffered at the hands of hostile forces?
Isn’t that what governments are supposed to do for their citizens? The case of South Koreans abducted during the war should be top priority in the ongoing government-level inquiry into historical misdeeds, and the government should assume an aggressive role in finding out if the abductees are still alive, and if not, in bringing back home their remains.
This year’s autumn foliage is especially pretty, where the bright yellow gingko trees, in particular, radiate in the sun, to light up our streets. Surely, they must be the yellow ribbons that heaven ― hearing the dearest prayers of the families left behind ― has sent down for us.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin