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.
Controversy about methods
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.