Choi Sung-yong remembers his father as a war hero who became a successful fishing boat captain, a reserved man who helped at orphanages and once splurged to buy his music-loving teenage son a record player, a true luxury at the time.
But all the memories are tinged with loss. In 1967, when Choi was just 15, his father’s boat failed to return from sea. The family went into mourning, assuming the boat had sunk. But three months later they were shocked to learn that Choi’s father, Choi Won-mo, was alive, but lost to them. His vessel, it turned out, had been captured by North Korea, and when the North Koreans released the crew, they kept Choi’s father.
In the more than four decades since, Choi, 57, has devoted himself to trying to find his father and the hundreds of other missing South Koreans believed to have been snatched by North Korean agents.
He toils in a tiny Seoul office, where the walls are covered with sepia-toned photos of the missing.
“So far,” he said, “my work has been a lonely fight.”
Unlike in Japan — where the plight of fewer than 20 Japanese abductees has almost become a national obsession — the issue of the disappeared is a divisive one in South Korea, freighted with a tangle of conflicting emotions about the North and the collective suffering of South Koreans since the peninsula’s fratricidal war from 1950 to 1953.
In the early years, South Korea’s fervently anti-communist military rulers treated families like Choi’s with suspicion, fearful that those who had disappeared were defectors lured by the same ideology that helped cleave the country. But even a shift away from authoritarianism did not help. A succession of liberal presidents who gained power in democratic elections in the 1990s ignored the families’ cause in pursuit of reconciliation with the North.
While South Korea’s current conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a tougher line on the abduction issue, the South Korean public remains far less passionate on the subject than the Japanese, who helped drive their leaders not only to sever economic ties with the North, but also to continually urge the US not to forget the abductees in its drive to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Fed up with waiting, Choi decided years ago to take matters into his own hands. In the late 1990s, he began traveling to northern China, where he developed contacts among North Koreans to try to gather information about his father.
Over time, he built something of an underground railroad in the North by getting contacts to spirit money over the border to desperately poor families who agreed to help in his quest. And slowly, he began to achieve, in a small way, what the Seoul government has failed to do.
Since 2000, Choi says, Abductees’ Family Union, which he leads, has smuggled seven South Koreans back to their country via China, including one who later returned to the North because he had started a family there.
Officials at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which helps oversee inter-Korean relations, acknowledge that Choi has succeeded in bringing out abducted South Koreans, though they will not confirm the number.
His efforts — and his role with Abductees’ Family Union, which lobbies for the families of 505 civilians thought by the South Korean government to have been kidnapped — have earned him wide attention in the South’s media. They have also, he says, led to death threats from the North.