SEOUL — The walls of Choi Sung-yong’s office are covered with yellowed head shots of missing South Korean men. Most haven’t been seen since the 1960s or 1970s, when they were snatched by North Korean agents and detained with no explanation. One of the missing men is Choi’s father.
South Korea’s government has had little success in bringing them home. So, after years of mounting frustration, Choi has gone rogue.
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.”
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.
The South Korean government has made repeated attempts to confirm the whereabouts of the abductees, but Pyongyang says that any South Koreans within its borders came there voluntarily.
“North Korea does not even recognize this as an issue,” said Hwang Jung-joo, a director at the South’s Ministry of Unification, which is in charge of humanitarian issues involving the divided peninsula.
Some activists say the South, cautious about provoking the North, prefers to deal with the abduction issue quietly — a contrast to Japan, where the fate of fewer than 20 recognized Japanese abductees is an obsession for politicians and fodder for tabloids. Japan has a cabinet minister responsible for the “abduction issue,” and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi negotiated the release of five Japanese kidnap victims in 2002.
Choi’s father had served during the Korean War in the Korean Liaison Office, a unit under the command of the U.S. Army that gathered intelligence and carried out special operations. He later owned ships for fishing off the west coast of Korea. He disappeared when Choi was 15, and Choi assumes that he is dead. Choi’s father this year was given a posthumous award from the South Korean government recognizing his “brave contributions” during the war.
Starting in the 1990s, Choi, who owns and operates fishing boats of his own, decided he’d use all means to recover his father’s bones. He rented homes in three parts of northeastern China and met the businessmen and bribe-takers who routinely travel between China and the North. Choi paid those brokers to cross into the North to learn about his father. Instead, they came back with a cache of information about other abductees.
Choi decided to go after the other victims, all while publicizing his successes, in an effort to remind Seoul lawmakers that some South Koreans remain trapped in the North.
Several years ago, when he felt legislators weren’t paying enough attention to the abductee issue, he barricaded himself in the office of Park Geun-hye, then the leader of South Korea’s main conservative party and now the country’s president, until she met with him; he ultimately got support for a bill to increase assistance to abductees.
Choi sees few moral complications in his work: South Koreans were wrongly taken, he says, and they should return.
But some of his methods are “highly illegal,” Choi admits, and controversial.
To find the addresses of some kidnap victims in the North, for instance, he says he has sent couriers with Japanese cameras and cellphones, which are distributed to members of North Korea’s Bowibu, or state security department.
When abductees return to the South, Choi publicizes the homecomings, holding well-attended news conferences and brandishing photos for television cameras. The latest publicity move came in August, when Choi revealed the escape of Jeon Wook-pyo, a fisherman who had just crossed into China after 41 years in the North. It would take Jeon several more weeks to make it all the way back to South Korea. Choi says his brokers had visited Jeon in North Korea two or three times over five years to persuade him to escape.
But since that news conference, Choi said, Jeon has cut off contact with him.
Officials at the Ministry of Unification declined to discuss Choi’s work. Choi says his news conferences don’t place the families of abductees in extra danger. “In North Korea, if a person goes missing for 15 days, that family will be investigated anyway,” he said.
At least a few of those who have returned to the South are fiercely loyal to Choi and say he deserves credit for speaking out about their plight. “He’s doing work even the government isn’t willing to do,” said Choi Uk-il, who escaped in 2007 after 33 years.
Others see a more complex figure, one who has opened new wounds while trying to mend others.
A smuggled photo in Choi’s office shows a group of abductees in the North at a reeducation session — a crash course in North Korean ideology. The photo is from 1974, and the men are young. Choi sees in their faces a call for help.
“Look at that picture,” he says. “Nobody is smiling.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.