South Korea's Unforgotten

A new organization in South Korea works to educate the public about North Korea's history of abductions.

ko_myung_seob-305.jpg Abducted by North Korea in 1975, Go Myung Seob bursts into tears upon returning home and being reunited with his mother, Kim Young Ki, in Kangreung, South Korea, Aug. 12, 2005.
Yonhap News Agency

SEOUL—Seven South Koreans kidnapped and held for decades by North Korea have formed a new organization to raise awareness of the thousands of South Koreans abducted by the reclusive Pyongyang government, an organizer of the group said.

The Returned Abductees’ Committee was announced here in recent days, according to Go Myung Seob, who spent 29 years in North Korea after being kidnapped from a boat in 1975 along with 32 other men.

Pyongyang’s aim was to claim to its own people that South Koreans were defecting to the Stalinist country, he said.

Relatives of the abducted men were meanwhile closely watched in South Korea, where authorities suspected that the men were North Korean spies.

I feel guilty, as if I killed three people by leaving."

Go Myung Seob

Kim Byung Po, Lee Han Seob, and Lee Jae Geun founded the group, along with Go and three other defectors who asked not to be named.

Go, 65, fought on the U.S. side during the Vietnam War and did odd jobs back in South Korea.

After his kidnapping from a fishing boat, he worked at hard labor in North Korea and married a North Korean woman with whom he had two children, now 29 and 30, he said.

He escaped in 2006 and now faces lifelong treatment for stress and depression because he fears for his family’s safety.

“I feel guilty, as if I killed three people by leaving,” he said through an interpreter.

“I fear they will be penalized because I left.”

Thousands taken

Dark-haired and animated, his face—tanned and weathered from decades of outdoor labor—falls when he talks about his children.

“Families in North Korea are like other families,” he said, “except that in North Korea they will turn you into the authorities if you do something wrong.”

Perhaps 10 of the men with whom he was abducted are still living, Go said.

“When I came back to South Korea, I cried my eyes out—I wanted my 30 years back,” he said.

Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, more than 3,700 South Koreans are believed to have been abducted by North Korea—the vast majority of them fishermen.

The most famous case is that of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, Choe Eun-hui, who were abducted to make films for the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in 1978.

They escaped in 1986 after being given permission to travel abroad.

Relatives of South Korea’s abductees, represented by two existing groups, have long complained that Seoul has done far less than Tokyo to account for its missing citizens.

Japan says North Korea kidnapped 16 of its nationals from 1977-83, but Pyongyang acknowledges kidnapping only 13. Some believe the actual number is far higher.

Economic tailspin

Go said he witnessed dramatic changes in North Korea after the death in 1994 of founding president Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader Kim Jong Il.

The economy went into a tailspin, he said.

“A lot of farms and factories were sold to Chinese buyers, and some factories would be broken down and the steel parts sold—but that ended in 2002-2003. The government would execute anyone who did that.”

Estimated death tolls from the famine that struck North Korea in the mid-1990s are generally too low, he said.

“Whole families would just die overnight,” Go said. “Millions died, I am sure.”

Original reporting by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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