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Families Seek News of North Korean Abductees

FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, shakes hands with former abductee Hitomi Soga. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Families Seek News of North Korean Abductees
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Families of people held in North Korea want other countries not to forget their relatives.

One example is Hwang In-cheol’s father. He was among the 47 people who were on a Korean Air Lines (KAL) airplane that was hijacked to North Korea in 1969.

Most of the passengers and crew were released following international pressure. But not all. Eleven individuals, including Hwang’s father, were not permitted to leave North Korea or even communicate with their families.

“To this day, 48 years later, my father and the rest of the 11 unreturned abductees remain forcefully detained in North Korea and they have been forgotten,” Hwang said.

The son now leads an activist group called the KAL Abductees’ Repatriation Committee. It works to bring international attention to the issue of people held against their will in North Korea.

The North Korean government returned most prisoners-of-war from the Korean War after the fighting stopped in 1953. However, the government reportedly forced thousands of South Koreans to remain in the North to help rebuild the country.

Thousands of others reportedly were kidnapped over the years to gain intelligence or serve some propaganda purpose. Many are said to have been fishermen.

Hwang’s father was a reporter and a critic of the North Korean government. He is one of more than 500 people thought to be held by the North.

The Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) deal with such issues. They say 300 of those abductees are believed to be more than 70 years old.

Many of the abduction cases remain unresolved. Increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula have blocked cooperation on humanitarian issues.

Hwang said the South Korean Human Rights Commission has provided “no help” to gain the release of abductees or to help families communicate with them.

Japanese abductees also among those taken

North Korea has also been accused of seizing a number of Japanese and other foreign nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Reports say some of those abducted were to be trained as spies.

One Japanese abductee was Hitomi Soga. She was taken with her mother from an area along Japan’s northern coast in 1978.

Former U.S soldier Charles Jenkins spent nearly 40 years in North Korea. He was reunited with his wife Hitomi Soga during an easing of tensions with the North.
Former U.S soldier Charles Jenkins spent nearly 40 years in North Korea. He was reunited with his wife Hitomi Soga during an easing of tensions with the North.

While in North Korea, she married Charles Jenkins. He had served in the United States Army. He left his base in South Korea and went to North Korea in 1965.

Jenkins later denounced his defection to North Korea, where he said he was abused and tortured during his first years of captivity.

Hitomi Soga was forced to teach the Japanese language and culture to North Korean agents. In 1980, she met and later married Jenkins. They had two daughters while they were in North Korea.

In 2002, the leader of North Korea at the time, Kim Jong-il, admitted that his government had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens. Soga and four other Japanese abductees were permitted to visit Japan again, but they refused to return to North Korea.

Charles Jenkins and their two daughters were permitted to rejoin Soga in 2004. He recently died in Japan at the age of 77.

Recent weapons tests have frozen abductee issue

Before North Korea again began testing nuclear weapons, the government reached an agreement with other countries to ease some sanctions. In exchange, North Korea was to carry out an investigation on the condition of the abductees. However, those efforts have halted with the North’s continued weapons testing and the international sanctions that followed.

Phil Robertson is deputy director in Asia for the activist group Human Rights Watch. He said there was a short period of openness when Jenkins and others were released, but now the abductee issue is not being discussed.

Robertson said North Korea is now in “complete denial on the case of abductions of foreign nationals.”

The United Nations Security Council met recently to discuss a General Assembly recommendation on North Korea’s human rights record. Under the proposal, Council members would refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

However, China, North Korea’s ally, has blocked further action.

North Korea has condemned the UN action, calling the accusations false and the meeting the act of “hostile forces.”

I’m Mario Ritter.

Brian Padden and Youmi Kim reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

abductee –n. someone who has been taken away from a place by force

defect –v. to leave one’s own country or group to go a competitor or an enemy

sanctions –n. measures meant to force a country to obey international law usually by limiting trade

referv. to make a note of something; to offer for consideration

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