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A rescuer of Korea's forgotten

An activist's network helps free countrymen who had been abducted and held by the North, such as a fisherman who escaped after 32 years.

February 08, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Jumunjin, South Korea — RUSTY squid trawlers chafe at their tethers in this bustling harbor along South Korea's east coast, just as they did on the August morning in 1975 when fisherman Choe Uk-il boarded the Cheonwang with a crew of 31 others and set out on an expedition that was supposed to last a week.

It would be close to 32 years before he came home. Choe, 67 now, finally returned in January, a gaunt shadow of the man who went to sea as a hired hand looking to help support his wife and four children. He and his shipmates had vanished four days into the trip. Their families were told they had been lost at sea.

More than two decades passed before Choe got word to his family that the Cheonwang's crew had instead been captured by a North Korean naval vessel and sent to live inside the gulag state. He had since wed a North Korean widow with two children and was scratching out a living as a farmer in a village.

It would be 10 more years before he was able to escape the North Korean dictatorship and return home a free man. But only the happy conclusion to his story makes Choe's disappearance stand out.

By count of the government of South Korea, 3,790 of the country's citizens have been kidnapped by North Korea since the 1953 truce in their civil war, of whom 485 are believed still alive, held against their will and unable to keep in touch with their families. Yet successive South Korean governments have been reluctant to press the cause of these hostages.

If Choe owes his freedom to anyone, it is to his South Korean wife, who never gave up on the possibility of his returning home, and to a soft-spoken but determined rescuer named Choi Sung-yong.

Choi has become the embodi-

ment of hope for families whose loved ones have been abducted by North Korea. His own father was kidnapped from a fishing boat in 1967. Pushed by a mother who "ordered" him to bring his father back, Choi, 55, has spent 15 years developing a network to penetrate the mists of North Korea.

Over the years, his "messengers," as he calls them, have managed to locate some of the abducted South Koreans and have freed five, at a price as high as $30,000 each.

The story of Choe's rescue underscores the perils of Choi's enterprise. More than three decades after being abducted, Choe was still closely watched by North Korean security agents and afraid to risk escape.

"For 32 years I lived under the surveillance of the North Korean security agency," he said at a news conference after his release. "I was not able to eat or live properly."

So acute was his fear that he went to the local police department and reported some of the messengers sent to rescue him. Four of the eight Choi dispatched ended up in the hands of North Korean authorities. Their fate is unknown.

"In the end, this is a happy story," Choi said recently in his cramped Seoul office, its walls papered with photos of abducted South Koreans. They are haunting portraits of previous lives, snapped on graduation days or at tourist attractions with left-behind wives and children. "But there were sacrifices," he added.

"It's like the movie 'Saving Private Ryan' -- a lot of people sacrificed to save one man."

MOST of the men who left from Jumunjin's chipped concrete docks and waterfront fish markets that August morning were not fishermen by trade. Crew members looking to pick up some extra money from the squid haul included construction workers and policemen, a bankrupt businessman and two sets of brothers. Most had wives and children.

Three boats left together, heading toward the deep water near Ulleung island. But the catch was disappointing, and the Cheonwang's crew decided to look for different fishing grounds.

"We went into North Korean waters for 29 hours because there were no fish," Choe explained upon his return, clearing up one mystery.

Upon their arrest, they were taken ashore and dispersed across North Korea in groups of three to five. In the ensuing years, they rarely saw one another, mainly meeting at periodic ideological training sessions that sometimes lasted a few weeks.

There was no contact with relatives at home, and as the years passed, several families moved away from Jumunjin.

Today, about 10 of the families remain, and they describe ruined lives marked by grief and grinding poverty.

"All of our families still live very cautiously," said Lee Dae-u, one of seven children left fatherless by one of the kidnappings from the Cheonwang. He is the only one in his family still dealing with "this business," as he calls it. "None of my brothers or sisters will even talk about it."

He was devastated when the families learned that the crew had not died, but that his father remained beyond reach.

"I had been angry at my father," Lee said. "I thought my life was miserable because he had died.

"And then this gets dropped on you. I felt like a lump grew inside me."

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