Abductee families look on at Korean War family reunions

Sunghee Hwang
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Hwang In-cheol was only two years old when his father was kidnapped to North Korea in 1969

As a lucky few Korean families meet decades after being divided by war, Hwang In-cheol looks on lamenting the absence of his father, whose plane was hijacked by the North.

Hwang was only two when his father Won left for a business trip in 1969, never to return. Now 50, he has spent his life missing a man he only knows from pictures.

Scores of elderly North and South Koreans who were separated by the 1950-53 conflict met for the first time in decades on Monday, hugging each other tearfully.

But none of them was among the thousands of South Koreans Seoul says were kidnapped by the North after the war.

"The sight of the families reuniting looks very nice but these one-time reunions are not a solution to the problem," Hwang said.

"I hope that day for me comes soon. I'm hoping that my father will be alive until then."

His father was on a domestic Korean Air flight hijacked by a North Korean spy with 47 passengers and four crew members on board.

Months later 39 people were repatriated, not including Won, a producer for South Korean broadcaster MBC.

Returning passengers said he was dragged away after resisting efforts to indoctrinate them and questioning the North's ideology.

- 'Heartbroken' -

Hwang's only knowledge of his father is from photos and the stories told by relatives.

His mother told him that he was working in the US and would return on Christmas Day.

"I always waited for Christmas but he never came," said Hwang, who concluded his father had left them.

"I thought he didn't like us. I remember being heartbroken."

When he turned nine, his uncles told him the truth.

Hwang expected never to see his father again, but in 2000 the two Koreas agreed to include South Korean abductees at reunions for families separated by the war.

His hopes were fuelled when one of the stewardesses on the flight, Seong Kyung-hee, met her mother at the 2001 event, and his longing intensified when his own daughter reached the age he had last seen his father.

"The thought of being stripped away from my daughter was just so painful," he said. "I could feel how painful it must have been for my father."

But five years later the Red Cross informed him the North had said it was "unable to confirm" whether his father was alive or dead.

Pyongyang almost never admits it has seized South Korean citizens, putting an extra hurdle in the way of reunions between abductees and family members.

According to Seoul government figures, nearly 4,000 South Koreans were kidnapped by the North after the end of the 1950-53 conflict -- some never returned from a stroll on the beach, while others were on board fishing boats that vanished.

The South's unification ministry estimates around 516 remain in the North, but so far only 19 have been briefly reunited with their families at previous events.

The issue is not prominent in the South, unlike Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regularly demands resolution of the fate of a handful of missing Japanese -- although Pyongyang released what it said were the five survivors in 2002, and said eight others it admitting kidnapping had all died.

"For us, meeting our family is as hard as plucking a star from the sky," Hwang said.

- Time running out -

Hwang has given up hope of a meeting at the official reunions, and devoted himself to a solitary search for his father, eventually losing his job at a publishing company.

"My body and my mind were focused solely on my father," he said.

His father is still alive, he has been told by a broker, who was able to provide details of family history that only an insider would have known.

But he has not been given pictures or had direct contact, and a 2013 plan to bring the older man to China came to nothing.

Hwang now works odd jobs on construction sites to support his family, but says there is not enough reason for him to give up.

"I made a list of why I should and should not continue," he said. "The only reasons I had for giving up was that it was difficult."

Even so, his father turns 81 this year and he knows he is running out of time.

"I only know my father from photos and I want to feel his presence myself," Hwang said.

He beamed as he held up a black and white picture of his dad next to his own face, taking off his glasses and imitating his facial expression.

"I look even more like him now," he said.

"It's simple for me. I just want to call him 'Dad'."