South Korea’s new Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea launched its fact-finding project last month. The research is aimed at providing the South Korean government with comprehensive information on human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime. The information acquired is expected to serve as evidence to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. In light of this effort, Daily NK and Unification Media Group are collecting and publishing testimonies of human rights abuses. The goal is to alert the outside world to the severity of these atrocities and to send a warning to the perpetrators of these ongoing crimes.
Voices around the world are rising in unison – the North Korean leadership will someday be held responsible for its crimes against humanity. The UN’s human rights office in Seoul has been established to collect and document victim’s testimonies. To better understand why the UN and the Republic of Korea government are taking such steps, we turn to an individual story.
Today, we’re going to speak with Hwang In Cheol, whose father was kidnapped during the 1969 North Korean hijacking of Korean Airlines Flight YS-11. Thanks for coming in today. Can you start by telling us some basic information about the incident that separated you from your father?
I was only two years old at the time. The domestic flight departed from Gangneung Airbase and was heading towards Gimpo Airport on December 11, 1969. It took off at 12:25 pm. Only 10 minutes after takeoff, a North Korean spy named Jo Chang Hui forcibly took control of the aircraft. The plane was rerouted to North Korea, and escorted by North Korean fighter planes. It landed at Yonpo Airfield. After facing international condemnation for the kidnapping incident, the North Korean authorities promised to return the kidnapped individuals on February 4, 1970. Unexpectedly, 39 of the passengers were repatriated ten days later. But the flight originally had 47 passengers and 4 crew members out of a total of 51 people. So after counting the kidnapper, one can deduce that the North Korean authorities only returned 39/50 individuals. The remaining individuals were never released.
Why do you think the North Korean authorities didn’t return the 11 remaining individuals?
According to testimonies provided by the 39 passengers who were returned, my father was vociferously demanding that the North Koreans return the kidnapped crew and passengers in accordance with the statutes of international law and humanitarian principles. In addition, when they were placed in ideological training sessions, my father refuted communist theory and said that the lecturer was wrong.
He was arguing about ideological matters. In addition, on January 1st, 1970, my father was singing a song called, “I Want to Go.” Hearing this, some communist soldiers came and took him away. Between the period of January 1, 1970 to February 14, 1970, none of the 39 passengers who returned said they saw him. Before that time, the authorities divided the passengers between two different locations (the Pyongyang Inn and the Daedong Inn), where they were forced to attend ideological indoctrination sessions.
So this entire episode came about because of the actions of the undercover spy Jo Chang Hui. According to defector testimony, the North Korean department that handles kidnapping is a liaison office of the central party. That would mean that Jo Chang Hui was most likely an agent from that liaison office. I’m curious how old your father was when he was kidnapped.
He was still young. Only 32 years old.
Why was your dad heading towards Seoul in the first place?
My dad was a section chief at MBC Broadcasting. There was a section meeting in Seoul and the department head was busy, so he sent my father. That’s why he was on that flight at 12:25 pm on December 11th, 1969. The Seoul meeting was a gathering for MBC department heads all over the country.
You said you were only two years old when your father was kidnapped, but I wonder if you have any memories of him.
I don’t have any memories of him. But I do hear stories about him. It was me, my mom, my dad, and my younger sister. I was always asking when dad is going to come home. My mother always told me that my dad was on a business trip in America, and that he’d return soon. She didn’t tell me the truth: that he’d been kidnapped. So she said that he’d be back for Christmas. My mom was like me; she was waiting for him to return. She said he’d be back at any time, that nothing was preventing him from coming home. So I waited with great anticipation for Christmas to come. I was so disappointed when he didn’t show up. This led to misunderstandings. I thought my dad didn’t return because he didn’t love us. My mother never told me the truth. I learned about it for the first time from my uncles.
It must be very difficult for someone in your position.
Of course. My mom suffered a great deal of trauma from the incident. Her husband left for a business trip and got kidnapped by the North Koreans – that was extremely difficult for her to go through. It made her feel like the most ordinary thing could lead to a sudden disaster. She became paralyzed inside due to the anxiety. She was always afraid for me, whether I was biking around or going somewhere on my own. Sometimes, hardships in life strike twice. People need to be able to move on, but my mom simply couldn’t.
You’ve been advocating for kidnapped South Koreans, including your father, for quite some time now. Was there any particular motivation that brought you into advocacy work?
Yes, there was. In 2001, at the third-ever Separated Families Reunion, a mother who was a stewardess on the plane was given the opportunity to meet her daughter. After seeing that, I became determined to try and meet my own father. Coincidentally, my eldest daughter was two when I made that decision. I have this special memory of hugging my daughter while watching the news report about the separated families reunion on TV. I realized how badly my father must have missed us when he got kidnapped. That hardened my determination to meet him. I decided to try to meet him and campaigned for his repatriation.
It seems like South Korea has mostly forgotten about the Korean Airlines (KAL) hijacking. Many people confuse it with the 1987 North Korean bombing attack, in which 115 people died on KAL Flight 858. That’s why I named our organization “The 1969 KAL Kidnapping Victims Family Council.” The hardest thing to explain to people is why this episode from history is still relevant today. The hardships that come from that struggle are my burden to bear.
What kind of activities have you undertaken in order to advocate for your father’s repatriation?
As a representative of South Korean kidnapping victims, on June 17, 2010, I was the first to send a petition to determine the living status of my father to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. North Korea sent a reply back on May 9, 2012. They denied that my father had been forcibly taken, and contended that it was not appropriate for the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to handle the matter. The North Korean authorities continue to assert that all my efforts to find my father are the fruits of a hostile scheme. I still get that same answer today.
A Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK that contains language urging North Korea to immediately release all imprisoned foreign persons recently passed through the third committee of the UN General Assembly. Do you think this can help shine some light on the Korean Airlines hijacking incident?
The Korean Airlines Hijacking incident is unique. The hardest part of dealing with incidents that involve forced disappearances and kidnapping of foreigners is obtaining factual evidence. These North Korean operations were secret and highly organized. In order to prevent evidence from emerging, the authorities used every method imaginable to erase all traces of the crime. That’s why it is so hard to get to the bottom of these events.
But the KAL kidnapping is a historical fact and an unavoidable one at that. The return of 39 passengers in 1970 is evidence that North Korea was responsible. The remaining 4 crew and 7 passengers were forcibly detained. In particular, my father argued against the tenets of communism and demanded that everyone be sent home at once. The fact that he sang “I Want to Go,” is clearly testament to the fact that he was being held against his will. Following this, he was taken away by soldiers. Not one of the repatriated passengers ever saw him again.
Soon after this, the International Committee of the Red Cross demanded that the remaining passengers and crew be returned. It demanded that the 11 people still detained be returned to South Korea. North Korea asserted that all of the remaining people were in the North because they wanted to be. The International Committee of the Red Cross proposed that independent observers should meet the detainees in a third country to determine if they really want to stay in the North. The North denied the request. After that, 47 years passed without any significant developments.
Of course, there have been other efforts to make progress on the issue. In June 1970, the International Aviation Organization sent a resolution saying that the North should permit all crew and passengers to travel to their original destination. On September 9, 1970, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the relevant authorities to coordinate with one another in order to settle the matter. At the 25th convention of the UN General Assembly in 1970, a resolution condemning illegal aircraft kidnappings was unanimously passed. Despite all this, my father and the other 10 passengers and crew have still not been sent back home.
Have you been able to get any indirect information about the status of your father?
Yes, I’ve heard that my father is living in the suburbs of Pyongyang. Despite receiving this news, I will not stop doing everything I can so that I can meet him in person. My father turned 79 years old this year.
I think the most important factor in this situation is the attitude of the North Korean authorities. Do you have anything that you’d like to say to them?
In 1983, North Korea ratified the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft and Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft. According to the convention, you have the responsibility to return my father and the other 10 kidnapped individuals. As you are a member of the international community and a signatory to such agreements, I demand that you repatriate my father.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your father in North Korea?
I never knew it would be so hard to get together with my father for even a brief encounter. But I will continue to work hard to find out his living status and to try to get him repatriated. I dream of meeting him sooner rather than later. Please be healthy, father!
If you include all the POWs from the ROK Army from the Korean War, there are so many kidnapped people that it is hard to count. But even after the war, it is estimated that 516 people were kidnapped by North Korea. People like Hwang In Cheol have been forced to suffer the pain associated with the sudden disappearance of a loved one. At just two years old, it was hard for Hwang In Cheol to comprehend what had happened to his father. This pain stays with the families of missing persons until their loved ones are able to return home. The international community calls upon the North Korean authorities to repatriate these victims.