Half a century ago a North Korean agent hijacked the flight carrying Hwang Won — Pyongyang never returned him to his family, but the search has defined his son’s life.
Hwang In-cheol was just two when he last saw his father. He knows him only through photographs, but he has spent much of his adult life campaigning for him.
A producer at South Korean broadcaster MBC, Hwang Won was starting a business trip on a domestic Korean Air flight from Gangneung to Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport on Dec. 11, 1969.
Minutes after takeoff, North Korean agent Cho Chang-hee slipped into the cockpit and diverted the airplane to Pyongyang at gunpoint.
Survivors have said that three North Korean fighter jets escorted it in to land, and that Cho was met by army officers and driven away. The other 50 passengers and crew were blindfolded with handkerchiefs before they were taken off the aircraft.
The incident sparked an international outcry, prompting a UN resolution denouncing the hijacking, and two months later, 39 of those on board were repatriated, but Hwang Won was not among them.
Returning passengers said that Hwang Won had been dragged away after resisting efforts to indoctrinate them and questioning the North’s ideology.
The Red Cross has long demanded the return of the remaining 11 South Koreans, but Pyongyang has repeatedly denied abducting them, claiming that some chose to stay.
Their plight soon dropped from public attention, but the impact on Hwang Won’s family has never faded.
“My life has been a cycle of misery,” his son said.
His mother was left traumatized by her husband’s disappearance, while doing something as ordinary as taking an airplane, and she has been consumed by “fears over minor things,” Hwang In-cheol said.
She would stop her children from riding bicycles to avoid the risk that they could be hit by a vehicle, or going swimming in case they drowned.
Later in life, his father’s detention in Kim Il-sung’s communist North was “a major handicap,” the mere fact that he was in Pyongyang making the son fail background checks for decent jobs.
In 2001, at one of the reunions periodically allowed by Pyongyang for families separated by the Korean War, one of the flight attendants, Sung Kyung-hee, met her mother for the first time in more than 30 years.
The sight of the pair’s tearful reunion inspired him to embark on a search for his father, quitting his job at a publishing company to travel across the South to raise awareness about the incident.
“I started out with the simple thought that I should meet my father too,” Hwang In-cheol said.
Hwang Won would be 82 — and Hwang In-cheol is sure that he was still alive as recently as 2017, when an intermediary gave him answers to questions that only his father would know.
After some research, Hwang In-cheol seized on the UN’s Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, ratified by North Korea in 1983.
Seoul could demand that North Korea abide by the international agreement and free the abductees, Hwang In-cheol said — but his pleas for government action have gone unanswered.
Last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met three times with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but Hwang In-cheol remained a bitter onlooker.
He admits that he sees no end in sight, but says: “If I give up, I will just become another perpetrator forcibly detaining my father.”
And he still lives in hope.
“I have no interest in seeing my father’s dead body or to weep at his grave,” Hwang In-cheol said. “All I want to do is to check how much I resemble him and to feel what it’s like to have a father.”
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