February 25, 2014 6:34 am

Korean reunions spark questions over fate of abductees

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South Korean Lee Oh-soon, 94, left, weeps with her North Korean brother Jo Won Je, 83, after the Separated Family Reunion meeting at Diamond Mountain in North Korea on Tuesday February 25©AP

South Korean Lee Oh-soon, 94, left, weeps with her North Korean brother Jo Won Je, 83, at a separated family reunion meeting at the Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea

Park Yang-su set to sea as a fisherman aged just 16 to support his family – little suspecting that he would be separated from them for more than 40 years, following his abduction by North Korean agents.

Mr Park and his younger brother Yang-gon were among 767 Koreans from both sides of the border taking part in a six-day reunion of separated families – the first since 2010 – which ended on Tuesday.

But theirs was one of only two reunions involving people kidnapped by North Korea – victims of a decades-long abduction programme that is believed to account for thousands of disappearances from South Korea and elsewhere.

South Korea’s government says that 3,835 of its citizens were kidnapped by North Korea in the decades following the Korean war, apparently for intelligence, propaganda or espionage uses. All but 516 have now been returned, and Seoul requested that 20 of these be allowed to meet their families during the reunions. Only two – including the Park brothers – were allowed to do so.

North Korea’s decision to permit the family reunions was treated as a sign of its recent push to improve relations with the South and address its economic and diplomatic isolation. There had been fears that it might cancel the event in protest at a South Korean-US military exercise that began on Monday, having scrapped a similar event planned for last September.

But Pyongyang’s continued refusal to allow the abducted South Koreans to return home highlights one of the most bizarre violations documented in last week’s UN report on human rights in North Korea: a massive abduction programme that may have entailed the kidnappings of more than 200,000 people.

Many of these were taken from the South by soldiers during the Korean war, which ended 60 years ago, but people from around the world are known to have been abducted. Charles Robert Jenkins, a former US soldier who spent four decades in North Korea, wrote in his autobiography of abductees from as far away as Romania and Lebanon.

The operations were approved “at the level of the Supreme Leader”, the UN report said – something particularly conspicuous in 1978, when Kim Jong ll ordered the kidnapping of a top South Korean film director to spearhead a new drive in the North Korean cinema industry.

Among the thousands of other abductees was the father of Choi Sung-yong, a fisherman whose vessel was seized by North Korean forces in 1967. Unlike several of his fellow crew members, Mr Choi’s father was not allowed to return home, and he appears to have been executed three years later – probably because he took part in guerrilla activities during the Korean war, Mr Choi believes.

My mission will not be complete until the day when families of all abductees can hold their loved ones in their arms

- Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe

Mr Choi has spent the past 14 years seeking to raise awareness of the plight of those abductees who remain in North Korea, and covertly helping them to escape. He claims to have organised the escapes of eight of the nine abductees who have fled North Korea during this period.

But Mr Choi is scathing of the South Korean government’s efforts to secure the return of the roughly 170 abductees who, he believes, remain alive in North Korea. “The government hasn’t done anything, and South Korean people don’t have any interest in this subject,” he says. “Whereas the Japanese people don’t tolerate kidnapping, so the government pushes on this issue.”

More than a dozen Japanese citizens – possibly many more, according to some accounts – were taken by North Korean agents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a crime that has received intense attention in Japan.

“My mission will not be complete until the day when families of all abductees can hold their loved ones in their arms,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said earlier in February at a meeting of the government’s special task force on the issue, which he chairs.

Five of the Japanese abductees returned home in 2002, and Pyongyang says eight others died – a claim questioned by Tokyo, which says that there are more abductees that have never been acknowledged by North Korea.

South Korea’s government rejects the claim that it has not made enough effort to secure the return of the abductees, saying that it has repeatedly raised the subject in negotiations with the North, and that it has been paying compensation money to the families of those kidnapped.

“There are so many issues between the two Koreas – with Japan, it’s more simple,” says one senior foreign ministry official. “The abductee issue is very important to us – we have raised this issue before with the North Koreans. But it takes two to tango.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Soble in Tokyo

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