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     Feb 26, 2005
Body snatching, North Korean style
By Andrei Lankov

SEOUL - An old photo, taken in 1974, recently was smuggled from North Korea. It depicts a group of men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, against the background of Myohyangsan Mountain, a famed North Korean resort. They look like a typical group of North Korean "model workers" who were rewarded with a government-paid tour for their hard work and devotion to the Great Leader and founding father, Kim Il-sung. But this is not the case: all these people are South Korean fishermen whose boats had been intercepted on the seas and who were taken to the North.

South Korea, currently engaged in a bewildering love-fest with its misunderstood North Korean brethren, has no official comment - any critical comment might complicate delicate relations. Over the years, the North has kidnapped fishermen, teenagers on beaches, activists, a pastor in China, a schoolteacher, at least one diplomat and assorted other South Koreans.

North Korean spy agencies love kidnappings. Of course, many of their colleagues worldwide also would not mind abducting a person or two, but in most cases there are perceived urgent reasons for such dramatic actions: the victims are prominent opposition leaders, or wanted criminals who cannot be extradited through normal channels, or people who are unlucky enough to know something way too important to be allowed freedom of movement or speech.

North Korean abductions are different: they are often surprisingly random and target people of no apparent significance. The very randomness of most abductions once was cited by skeptics who used to rebut these accusations as "Seoul-inspired falsities". Indeed, why should the secret services of a Stalinist state spend time and money to kidnap a Japanese noodle chef or a tennis-loving teenager? Nonetheless, in 2002 none other than Kim Jong-il himself, the Dear Leader and son of the founder, confirmed that these seemingly meaningless abductions of average Japanese men and women did take place.

Of course, North Korean spies did not limit themselves to the Japanese. The North Koreans began to snatch their own dissenters, who were abducted from the Soviet Union and other communist countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Then they applied their new experience and skills to a wider choice of targets, including, of course, South Koreans. It is known that at least 486 South Koreans have been forcibly taken to the North and never returned. The statistics do not include a large number of North Korean refugees who were abducted from China over the past decade.

There are a few major groups of South Korean abductees: fishermen, navy personnel, passengers and crews of hijacked planes. The abductees also include a number of known victims of covert operations. Currently they are said number 17, but there are few doubts that the actual number is much higher. If the abduction is planned and conducted well, the victim simply disappears and is sooner or later presumed dead.

A good example is the case of five South Korean high-school students who disappeared from island beaches in 1977-78. They all were believed dead (presumably drowned) for two decades, but in the late 1990s it was discovered that the youngsters were working in North Korea as instructors, introducing would-be undercover North Korean operatives to the basics of South Korean culture and lifestyle.

It is remarkable that the kidnappings of these South Korean students roughly coincided with similar abductions in Japan. In both cases the abductors obviously targeted randomly selected teenagers who were unlucky enough to be on a lonely beach, and in both cases abductees were later used to train espionage agents. Perhaps teenagers were seen as ideal would-be instructors for the spies: still susceptible to indoctrination but with enough knowledge of local realities to be useful. But one cannot help but wonder how many teenagers who have been presumed drowned or lost in the Korean Peninsula's mountain wilderness were actually taken to North Korea. And how many of them have survived to this day?

Quite a few kidnappings took place overseas. In April 1979 a young South Korean walked into the North Korean Embassy in Oslo. His name was Ko Sang-mu, and he was a schoolteacher back home. Why and how it happened is not clear. As was usually the case, the North Korean side insisted that Ko had defected, while the South Koreans alleged that the young teacher became a victim of a taxi driver's mistake: he took a taxi to a "Korean embassy" and the driver delivered him to the embassy of the wrong Korea.

It is impossible to say now whether this highly publicized case was abduction, defection or something in between. However, in 1994 it became known that Ko was in a labor camp. A small propaganda war ensued. Ko was made to appear in North Korean broadcasts assuring everybody that he was free, happily married and full of righteous hatred for the US imperialists and their Seoul puppets (most of his speech consisted of standard anti-American rhetoric). We do not know where he went after delivering this speech: to an apartment in Pyongyang or to a dugout in a prison camp, but the latter option appears more likely. Meanwhile, Ko's widow in the South committed suicide, unable to cope with the stress of the situation.

There were also more convenient cases of abduction: the North Koreans kidnapped the people who possessed important intelligence. In 1971 Yu Song-gun, a South Korean diplomat stationed in West Germany was kidnapped in West Berlin together with his wife and their two children. Perhaps a few other South Korean officials who went missing in Europe in the 1970s also were abducted by the North Korean agents, but on that stage only Yu's case is certain.

In the 1990s most abductions of this sort took place in China, and the victims were political activists, missionaries and real or suspected South Korean spies. All these abductions occurred in China's northeast, near the North Korean border. Recently, the South Korean government finally admitted that pastor Kim Tong-sik, involved in aiding North Korean refugees in China, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in January 2000. He was transported to North Korea, where the intelligence officers tried to extract necessary information - presumably by applying good old Stalinist interrogation technique on him. The pastor died.

But a vast majority - 90% of the confirmed cases or 435 out of 486 abductees - are fishermen who were taken to the North with their vessels after they were intercepted at sea by the North Korean navy. After such incidents, the North Koreans usually insisted that the vessel had deliberately trespassed the demarcation line between the two Koreas, while the South Korean side either denied this or asserted that the trespassing had been an innocent navigational mistake. It's not possible to say who was responsible for a particular skirmish, especially since the navigational techniques available to Korean fishermen back in the 1960s and 1970s left much to be desired.

In some cases the captured crews were eventually repatriated, but often Pyongyang alleged that at least a few crew members had "chosen to stay in the socialist paradise and not to go to the living hell of the capitalist South". In some cases this may have been true, while in many others it was a blatant lie. This is a usual problem with abductions/defections. When such an incident happens, South Korean authorities and family members of an abductee have the incentive to present the incident as a kidnapping while the North Korean side insists that the person in question had defected voluntarily. One suspects that even in future it will be impossible to find out the truth with absolute certainty: human motivations can be mixed. There will be new pressures as well: in post-Kim Jong-il Korea, few people will be ready to admit that they or their close friends once voluntarily defected to the Stalinist regime.

The first known interception of a fishing ship took place in May 1955. The most recent incident happened in 1987, when 12 South Koreans became prisoners in the North. During subsequent interceptions the crews were always repatriated.

In 1969 a Korean Air Lines plane was hijacked in the air. Most of the South Koreans were repatriated, but 12 crew members and passengers were held in the North. Eventually, two stewardesses became announcers of the North Korean propaganda broadcasts that target South Korean audiences. Indeed, this radio station employs a number of abductees.

Generally North Korean authorities wanted to utilize the knowledge and skills of their abductees. Of course, the fishermen hardly had access to valuable intelligence, but they still could be trained as spies and sent back to the South. They were also used for training North Korean intelligence operatives. Better-educated people could be employed by the institutions responsible for waging propaganda campaigns against the South in, say, their broadcast facilities.

Most of the abductees were dispatched to work somewhere in the countryside. Some led lives that could be described as normal or even successful, at least by North Korean standards. For example, Kim Pyong-do, whose boat was intercepted in November 1974, was forced to stay in the North, where he became a factory worker. Eventually he became a foreman, was decorated with a medal for exceptional work, and otherwise had a life not so very different from that of the average North Korean worker. In 2003 he crossed the border into China and returned home. Others were much less lucky. There have been reports about the abductees sent to the prison camps as "unmasked spies" or reactionaries (the story of Ko Sang-mu being one of many examples).

But one cannot help but wonder why not much is heard about the abduction issue in Seoul. After all, there have been fewer than 60 Japanese abductees - even if one believes the highest available estimate. Nonetheless, the issue is central to Japanese politics and stirs high emotions in Tokyo. Meanwhile, only family members and some right-wing groups seem to care about South Koreans who disappeared in Pyongyang. What's the matter?

This reflects the general approach to the North in present-day South Korea. The abduction issue used to be much cited by the official propaganda of the military regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, but middle-aged Koreans are seriously (and, one suspects, incurably) allergic to anything that reminds them of this propaganda. The political left, which increasingly dominates South Korean internal discourse, is remarkably positive toward the North. The logic is simple: if one raises uncomfortable issues with the North, this is unlikely to help, but will make things more complicated instead. As the left-wing journalists love to say, "Development needs come first, and human rights second." This might well be true, but the same ideologues are ignited when similar logic is applied to the authoritarian regimes of South Korea's own past (even if South Korean strongmen, unlike the North Korean dynastic rulers, delivered truly exceptional economic growth and even if the human-rights violations in the military-ruled South were of immeasurably smaller scale). This can be described as betrayal of political freedom committed by the South Korean left - but admittedly, throughout the world's history freedom has been sacrificed to political expediency, both by the left and by the right, a countless number of times.

It is important to note, however, that the isolated attempts to raise the issue are largely ignored by the general South Korean public, or at least by the majority. They want to nurture their newly acquired illusions about the North. According to the current prevailing mood, North Korea should be seen as a tragically misunderstood brother in need of help, not as a cruel kidnapper of teenagers or torturer of priests on humanitarian missions. These illusions are likely to continue for a while, even if many more photos are smuggled out of the North.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at the Kookmin University, Seoul.

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