He has become South Korea’s most high-profile advocate for the disappeared, a brash campaigner using shadowy brokers, bribes and lies to spirit the men out of one of the world’s most repressive countries. Since 2000, nine abductees have escaped the North, and Choi says eight of those — including a fisherman who returned last month — wouldn’t have made it out without his help.
Those eight “owe me their lives,” Choi says.
But on the fractured Korean Peninsula, even a seemingly noble act like rescuing the abducted can cause unforeseen anguish. Several of the returnees say Choi has endangered their wives and children left behind in North Korea because of his hunger for media attention. If some see Choi as a hero fighting an authoritarian regime, others say he acts recklessly. He often clashes with the same men he helps to bring home.
Choi, 61, who heads the Abductees’ Family Union, has the bearing of an aging prizefighter — big arms, a wide nose and a wrinkle across his forehead deep enough to be a scar. He says his mission requires hardheadedness and a willingness to do things that few diplomats would dare.
When Choi’s brokers track down kidnap victims in North Korea, for instance, they sometimes lie to the abductees, saying that long-lost family members are waiting for them in China, the first stop on the way home.
It’s a “white lie” that helps some abductees overcome fears about leaving their families behind in the North and making a dangerous escape, Choi says. And indeed, some abductees are ultimately reunited with loving, long-lost relatives in the South.
But in at least one case, the lie has proven damaging. A returnee now living in Seoul with his 89-year-old mother said recently that he had never intended to come to the South. Rather, he had expected to make a furtive — and temporary — trip into China to see relatives before returning to the North to his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. Only when he got to China did he realize his predicament: He’d been led there by brokers who now warned him about the dangers of trying to return to North Korea and who didn’t intend to lead him back.
“I never got to say goodbye to my wife and children,” said the returned abductee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his family.
“On one hand, I’m grateful” to Choi, the man added. “On the other hand, he’s done wrong.”
A personal motivation
As Choi tells the story, he came to his job almost by accident, interested initially in finding only one man.
Choi’s father, Choi Won-mo, was one of the nearly 4,000 victims taken by the North in the decades after the Korean War. Most of the abductees were allowed to return to South Korea within a year, but 516 remain stuck in the North, according to South Korean government records — presumably retained either because they were viewed as useful workers or because their backgrounds were suspect.