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Lost In Purgatory: The Story of South Korean Abductees

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This photo, posted on the abductee association’s website, shows South Korean fishermen on a group outing in North Korea in 1974. The men were identified as having been kidnapped during 1971-1972. One-third of the men in the photo are now believed to be dead, according to an abductee who escaped to South Korea in 2000.

Between 1955-1987, South Korea had its own version of a Bermuda Triangle near the 38th parallel, a place where ships and planes would mysteriously disappear. In this version, the vessels and their crews would reappear in North Korea after a few days, victims of abductions the North Korean government has become notorious for.

As many as 3,790 South Koreans, most of them male, have been abducted by North Korea since the Korean War, according to data provided by an association of abductee families. The association claims 487 are still being held against their will. A lucky few have been repatriated, a few have escaped to North Korea and many others have since died in captivity.

Over time, these abductees have slowly faded from memory, abandoned by a country that has the resources but not the will to bring them home.
Many were husbands, fathers and sons—some as young as 16—and many of them have not returned to their families despite the recent thaw in relations between the two Koreas.

Their story, for the most part, has been ignored, even when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il in 2002 and succeeded in securing the release of five Japanese abductees.

By far, the largest group of abductees was fishermen but there were also pilots and stewardesses, the crew of a navy communications ship, students, journalists and and diplomat. Abductions usually occurred in South Korean territory but kidnappings also happened in third countries, including Germany, Norway, Japan and Indonesia.

This tally does not include some 80,000 that were forcibly taken to the north during the Korean War. Nor does it include another 500 POWs who were prevented from returning to South Korea after the armistice in 1953.
For its part, the South Korean government insists that it is working continuously to “persuade” North Korea to resolve the issue, but no tangible progress has been made.

In contrast to the Japanese government, which has made the return of abductees the centerpiece in its negotiations with North Korea, South Korea has been reluctant to bring up the sensitive topic with the communist regime, concerned that it will alienate North Korea—which it has been ardently courting in recent years. In a 2005 white paper on inter-Korea relations published by the South Korean government, one out of a total of 254 pages was devoted to abductees.

The South Korean Red Cross, a main channel for inter-Korea communications, has posted only five statements about abductees on its website, the most recent one dating back to 2001. And Amnesty International, which has released several statements about the Japanese abductees, seems less vocal about the South Korean victims.

The fate of the abductees has been complicated by the fact that North Korea has so far denied their existence, despite photos and testimonies proving otherwise. Seoul has adopted an odd tactic to skirt Pyongyang’s denial by categorizing abductees and POWs as members of “separated families,” a term used to denote people separated during the Korean War. This way, the South Korean government claims, they will at least have a chance, albeit remote, to meet with families in South Korea via inter-Korea reunions held intermittently at North Korea’s whim.

“As a result of these efforts…a total of 19 families of abductees and POWs were able to meet, and the fates of 88 people were confirmed,” said the South Korean Ministry of Unification.

On the homepage of the abductee association, there is a long list of names of those who were abducted by North Korea. The list includes the circumstances under which they were kidnapped, their hometowns and their ages. It reads like a memorial paying tribute to those who were unwilling victims in a conflict that continued long after the last bullet was fired.

In the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea, a bridge known as the Bridge of No Return, marks the site for the exchange of POWs in 1953. It is so named because once one crosses to the North Korean side, one cannot return. South Korean abductees have crossed that bridge without ever setting foot on it.