Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) held their fourth Global Leadership Forum in Seoul last month, raising awareness for victims who have been abducted by the North Korean government and their families.
Established in 2013, TNKR is a Seoul-based NGO committed to helping defectors adjust to life outside North Korea by providing them with free English language lessons. As of 2017, the organization has provided free education to three hundred defectors and attracted six hundred volunteers.
The July forum was boldly entitled “Not Just Otto” in reference to the arrest and death of American tourist Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Korean authorities. The case grabbed headlines across the world, piquing global interest in North Korean human rights abuses.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of other abduction cases have received little attention from the international community, many of which are still ongoing and date as far back as North Korea’s inception. TNKR highlighted some of these cases at the forum with the help of three guest speakers, who shared very personal accounts relating to such abductions.
The first speaker, Kenneth Bae, recounted details of his own abduction and imprisonment in North Korea from 2012 to 2014. Mr. Bae, a Korean-American Evangelical Christian missionary, ran a tourism company in China for visits to North Korea’s special economic zones as part of his missionary work at the time. On his eighteenth such tour, he was detained and later arrested for unwittingly bringing a computer hard drive containing international news reports on North Korea as well as some eight thousand photos that he took within the country onto the train with him from China to North Korea.
The North Korean authorities accused Mr. Bae of preaching against the North Korean government and attempting to subvert the regime through religion. He was sentenced in 2013 to fifteen years of hard labor at a prison for foreigners where forty guards kept watch over him alone. The labor was physically exhausting and the living conditions and nonstop propaganda, though tolerable, took their toll. Mr. Bae lost twenty-seven kilograms before being transferred to a hospital. He recalled that his only solace was his copy of the Bible, which the guards surprisingly agreed to return to him.
Despite such difficulties, however, Mr. Bae stated that he experienced compassion from the prison and hospital staff, whom he saw daily and eventually befriended. He noted that he was never once physically tortured and that his guards were genuinely interested about life in the US and would strike up conversations with him.
Mr. Bae explained that the friendships he made during his time in North Korea were what caused him to move to South Korea after his release in 2014. He currently works at an NGO for North Korean human rights in Seoul and plans to stay until the day of reunification. Having found that ordinary North Koreans were in fact regular people like himself, he insisted that winning the hearts of those people was essential for peace on the peninsula. “North Koreans need to realize that people outside care about them, so that when reunification happens, they don’t have to ask ‘Where were you when we were suffering and dying?’” he emphasized.
The second speaker was Mi-il Lee, who, as president of the Korean War Abductees’ Family Union (KWAFU), spoke about the approximately eighty-thousand South Koreans abducted by North Korean agents during the Korean War (1950-1953). The abductions, according to a 2017 investigation and report by the South, were systematic and premeditated violations of human rights amounting to a crime against humanity. Still, ordinary Koreans have slowly been forgetting about such atrocities and their victims, a point Ms. Lee greatly lamented.
Ms. Lee lost her father to abduction when she was only nineteen months old. Her mother, who had just given birth to Ms. Lee’s sister at the time, single-handedly nursed a sickly Ms. Lee back to health and took care of her two children, hoping that they may live to see their father again after the war. Sadly, Ms. Lee’s father disappeared without a trace, his prison found empty. Ms. Lee’s mother, however, never gave up hope, marshaling the families of other abductees and keeping their memories alive. Today, Ms. Lee follows in her footsteps.
The 2017 report and the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) were long-awaited milestones for Ms. Lee and her organization. Ms. Lee urged the audience not to lose focus on the abductions and other North Korean human rights violations, despite the country’s foreign policy and nuclear weapons program being a significant distraction. As important as the latter are, she passionately declared that true peace in Korea will only be achieved when the missing finally return.
The third and last speaker was Hwang In Cheol, representing the KAL Abductees’ Repatriation Committee (KALARC). Mr. Cheol discussed his ongoing fifteen-year effort to repatriate his father, who was abducted when his Korean Air flight was hijacked and rerouted to North Korea by a North Korean agent in 1969. The flight, originally bound for Gimpo Airport, carried fifty-one people, consisting of four crew members and forty-seven passengers including the hijacker and Mr. Hwang’s father, an MBC producer. Mr. Hwang was just two years old at the time.
In 1970, North Korea released thirty-nine passengers following international condemnation of the incident, but mysteriously withheld the remaining eleven victims, among whom was Mr. Hwang’s father.
Decades passed without further development, and the incident gradually left the public eye. Even Mr. Hwang had moved on, until he saw a televised reunion between one of the crew on the same 1969 flight and her daughter in 2001. Mr. Hwang, who had a two-year-old daughter of his own at the time, recalled that he was overcome with emotion when he thought about how much his father must have missed him all those years.
Ever since, Mr. Hwang has advocated tirelessly for the return of the remaining eleven victims of the 1969 flight as well as countless other abductees. Progress has been limited due to lack of cooperation by the North Korean government and hesitance by the South Korean government to deal with the politically sensitive decades-old hijacking. In recent years, however, Mr. Hwang has applied to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the UNHRC and formally filed a lawsuit against the North Korean agent who abducted his father. His case gained widespread international recognition after teaming up with TNKR in 2016.
Lastly, Casey Lartigue, Director of TNKR, expressed his hope that the stories the speakers had shared that day would inspire audience members to take action. “We need to make sure that these cases end up in movements, not as moments. You don’t have to try to save the world. Start with one case – a case like Mr. Hwang’s – and go from there,” he concluded.