10,000 yellow kerchiefs to remember relatives held by North Korea
The relatives of South Koreans kidnapped by Pyongyang have tied yellow handkerchiefs on trees near the border as a sign of memory and hope. There is the story of Choi, a South Korean fisherman who was kidnapped for 31 years.
Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – 10,000 yellow handkerchiefs have been tied to trees to show that people kidnapped by North Korea have not been forgotten and that their return is still expected. The initiative was launched yesterday by an NGO of South Korean families of people abducted and detained by North Korea. Relatives of missing Koreans tied the first handkerchiefs to pines near the Imjingak (Paju) pavilion near the border between the Koreas. The park and buildings were constructed to console North Koreans who were unable to return home after the 1953 armistice.
Choe Wu-young, president of the NGO, said: “This year marks the 20th anniversary of my father's kidnapping by North Korea. I've never lost hope that my father, remembered as a man in his early 40s, will return home safe.” The initiative was started in 2005 with more than 400 handkerchiefs, but the trees they were tied to were eventually cut down to widen a street.
South Korea's Unification Ministry says North Korea never handed over 548 soldiers taken prisoner during the 1950-1953 war, and at least 485 South Koreans have been kidnapped by the North since the end of the conflict. Pyongyang says South Koreans stayed back “voluntarily” but 38 prisoners who managed to escape and return home tell a different story.
Choi Uk-il is a 67-year-old man who was kidnapped in August 1975, as were another 32 fishermen, in the Eastern Sea near the border between the two Koreas. He managed to escape to China and hopes to be able to return home. Another fisherman escaped and returned home a year ago. For 20 years, Choi had no news of his wife and their four children. In 1978 he managed to send them letters in secret thanks to a South Korean group called Representative of the Abducted Family Union.
Choi Sung-young, leader of the group, said that to help Choi escape, the group got him a work permit in Hyesan city near the border. On the night of 25 December, some Chinese led him across the border. Now he is hidden, helped by members of the group, because China usually hands fugitives back to Pyongyang, whereupon they are imprisoned and tortured. It is held that tens of thousands of North Koreans are living in hiding in China after escaping from their country. In December, the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said China’s repatriation policy violated the refugee convention.
On 31 December, Choi met his wife in the Chinese city of Yenji. His wife has asked the government to help her husband to return. Choi told a journalist who caught up with him that he has but one desire: “I want to return home as soon as possible to live with my family.”
Seoul has a policy of rapprochement with Pyongyang and makes no official comments about the problem. In 50 years, only around 10,000 North Koreans escaped to seek refuge in the south and activists say embassies of Seoul in third countries sometimes discourage those who ask for asylum. Tokyo, on the other hand, asks for the restitution of citizens kidnapped in the 70s and 80s to teach North Korean spies the language and habits of the Japanese. In December, the relatives of abductees from South Korea, Japan and Thailand met in Tokyo to call for the repatriation of their dear ones.