Lee Min Kyo, a high school athlete, disappeared from a camping trip on the western shores of South Korea in 1977, leading his desperate parents to spend their life savings on a decades-long search that turned up no trace of their missing boy.
Virtually every sinister scenario went through their minds, said Lee's mother, Kim Tae Ok, except for the one that finally turned out to be true: Their son had been abducted by North Korean spies.
Lee is one of 486 South Koreans who are officially recognized by their government as having been kidnapped by the Stalinist North. None of those 486 has been returned. Many of their families say their rage at the Communist authorities in Pyongyang is matched by rising fury against their own leaders in South Korea.
The kidnapped South Koreans represent a far larger group than the estimated 15 Japanese citizens who were also taken by agents of the North, which forced them into teaching their native language and customs in espionage schools.
But Japan has had great success over the past two years in securing the release of its abductees, as well as their children born in captivity. It has done this mostly by making their return a condition for conducting diplomatic talks and providing humanitarian aid to the North.
In contrast, families here say, the South Korean government has tried to play down the plight of the abducted South Koreans, fearing damage to the historic detente now burgeoning between the capitalist South and the communist North. After decades of bitter enmity, South Korea embraced outreach to the North about six years ago in what it called its "sunshine policy." As a result, the two Koreas are closer than at any point in the past half-century.
Furious over their government's reluctance to press the kidnapping issue, the South Korean families banded together and went to court to try to force their leaders into taking a harder line. After a two-year struggle, they lost their battle last Tuesday when a judge in Seoul ruled against their case. Though they have vowed to appeal, the setback has jolted them.
"I had hoped initially that the sunshine policy would mean that we had a better chance of seeing our loved ones again, or at least finding out their fate, but we have come to realize just the opposite," said Choi Woo Young, 52, president of Families of Abducted and Detained in North Korea.
Choi's father was kidnapped by the crew of a North Korean patrol boat in 1967 while he was fishing in seas west of South Korea. His name appeared in a 1999 intelligence list -- widely published by local media -- naming South Koreans being held as prisoners in North Korea.
"Our family members have become inconvenient for the South Korean government at a time when they are more interested in pleasing North Korea than demanding the return of their own citizens," Choi said.
The kidnapped South Koreans include other fishermen taken in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s after their boats strayed close to disputed sea borders. The most recent case involves a Korean American missionary abducted by North Korean agents three years ago in China. Still others, such as the 18-year-old athlete Lee, were abducted on land inside South Korea and apparently taken to the North to teach spies the dialects and slang needed to operate in the South.
The current climate in South Korea, where nationalism is on the rise and where many people no longer view North Korea as an enemy, has not worked in the families' favor. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has advocated scrapping the country's long-standing Security Law, which mandates severe criminal penalties for people who openly support the Pyongyang government. An Internet-based radio program, Free North Korea, which opposes the government in the North, was recently forced to relocate its offices after its landlord reportedly succumbed to pressure from unification activists.
Kim, 74, Lee's mother, did not want to be interviewed at her new home near the western port city of Inchon out of fear that her neighbors would learn about her missing son and her ill feelings toward the North. "My neighbors are in favor of unification," she said at a secluded restaurant in Seoul, her eyes filled with tears as she looked at dog-eared, sepia photos of her son. "I do not think they would understand my pain."
South Korean officials maintain that they have repeatedly brought up the abduction issue with the North -- though mostly in low-level talks. Officials admit they oppose making resolution of the abductions issue a prerequisite for better ties with the North.
"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.