"As opposed to Japan, we have to deal with this issue in a larger perspective, within the context of inter-Korean relations," said Chong Ryul Ryoo, director of the Social and Cultural Exchange Bureau at South Korea's Ministry of Unification. "Our situation is different than the Japanese case . . . and given the other important issues involved in North-South relations, this abductee issue may take some time" to resolve.
A Foreign Ministry official in Seoul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the government sympathized with the families. "We are doing our best, but I can understand their sense of victimization," he said. "The fact is this terrible situation has not been resolved."
In contrast, the Japanese government has made vigorous attempts to win the return of its abducted citizens. In conducting talks with the North aimed at improving political ties and giving aid to a desperately backward economy, Japan demanded that North Korea tell the truth about the Japanese it had abducted. By official count, 15 Japanese were carried off during the 1970s and '80s.
In September 2002, Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, garnered an official North Korean confession acknowledging the Japanese abductions, something Pyongyang has yet to give the South Koreans. He secured the release of five surviving victims and, earlier this year, exchanged humanitarian aid for the return of eight of their children born on North Korean soil.
South Korea is a far more important benefactor to the North than Japan. Officials in Seoul have permitted millions of dollars worth of investment to flow across the border in recent years. Development projects include a South Korean-funded hotel complex and resort near the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South and the creation of an industrial park in North Korea.
Few are more acutely aware of the consequences of those politics than Kim.
Since the day she last saw Lee on Aug. 13, 1977, Kim said, she has lived with guilt. Behind her husband's back -- even as her family was struggling with financial problems -- she had given the boy the equivalent of $30 scraped together from her door-to-door cosmetic sales so that he could join his wealthier friends on the camping trip to an island off South Korea's west coast.
"I gave it to him so he could go," she said, weeping.
That was the last time she saw her son.
In the decades that followed, Kim and her husband went bankrupt hiring private investigators and taking weeks off from their jobs to search the area themselves for any trace of their son. All leads turned into dead ends. In 1993, Kim's husband died from a long, stress-related illness. "He died before he knew our son was still alive," she said.
In the late 1990s, Kim said, she was informed by South Korean intelligence officials that a captured North Korean spy had reported being taught South Korean dialect by her son in North Korea. Kim gave authorities a photograph, which the man identified as her son, who would now be 45 years old.
South Korean officials declined to discuss the case of Kim's son specifically but confirmed that he has been registered as one of the 486 abducted South Koreans.
A few years ago, Kim was permitted to speak directly to the North Korean spy at his prison outside Seoul.
"He tried to reassure me that my son had a good life in North Korea, that all the South Korean teachers like him were being treated well," she said. "But I just told him to cooperate with the South Korean authorities and to go back to North Korea as soon as possible. I told him to find my son and tell him that his mother is still here waiting for him. I told him to tell my son that I have not forgotten him. I never will."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.