Mourning the missing

Mourning the missing


Kim Jeom-sun sits behind a black-and-white photograph that serves as a sad reminder of her long-lost husband.

He was one of 18 men from a small island village in South Korea, who were abducted by the communist North over 40 years ago in a Cold War conflict that still simmers today. Their families have since struggled with personal loss and social stigma, with the wives and children of the abductees often treated as Communist sympathisers.

. GEOJE, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A fishing boat sails close to Nongso, a remote outpost of around 170 people on the southern island of Geoje.

Back in December 1972, two fishing vessels from the village were seized by North Korean patrol boats near disputed waters.

Now, one of those fishermen who were taken to the North has returned to South Korea after fleeing through China.

The 68-year-old escapee, Jeon Wook-pyo, has paid a brief visit to Nongso, but he won't be settling back in the tight-knit community, where his return has reopened old wounds.

. GEOJE, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

For 82-year-old Ok Chul-soon, who lost her husband in the 1972 abduction, Jeon Wook-pyo’s return was painful.

"It wasn't a nice feeling that he reminded me of my husband. There was nothing to feel good about," she said.

During the North-South rapprochement after 2000, Ok applied to join a series of family reunions at a North Korean mountain resort, hoping to see her spouse again, only to receive a Red Cross letter in 2005 that simply said: "Dead".

Ok acknowledged Jeon's return was welcome, but said she was too upset to stay throughout his visit, adding they would meet privately at some time so she could ask for news of her husband.

. GEOJE, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The South Korean village of Nongso, pictured here, is not the only place to have seen its locals whisked away.

Seoul says 516 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, remain in the North after a spate of abductions following the 1950-53 Korean War - the two sides are technically still at war as no peace treaty was ever signed.

Those abducted were used by North Korea for propaganda purposes or intelligence gathering, according to the testimony of those who have made it back to the South. Pyongyang insists anyone in the North is there voluntarily.

South Korea's Ministry of Unification, which handles ties with the North, says the return of abductees is a "top priority".

Critics say, however, that the South Korean government has abandoned those held in the North and has stigmatised their families in the South, painting them as suspected subversives with ties to North Korean spies.

. BUSAN, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The wives, sisters and mothers of those still held in North Korea have only fading black-and-white photographs of their missing menfolk. Desperate for any news, some women borrowed money to hire shamans - a widespread practice in South Korea even today - for any clues as to the fate of the fishermen.

"One day, a shaman received the spirit of my dead father-in-law and he said my husband would never come back even if I did this ritual thousands of times," said 82-year-old Kim Jeom-sun, pictured here pointing at her husband in a photograph taken with other abductees in 1974 in North Korea.

Kim, who left Geoje around two decades ago, said her family suffered socially because of what had happened to her partner.

"Other kids told my children: 'You can't do anything because your father's a commie'," said Kim. "They cried every day."

. GEOJE, South Korea. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Eighty-eight-year-old Park Gyu-soon holds up a picture of the younger of her two sons, who were both taken in the 1972 abduction. They are now married in North Korea, where they have children.

Park was able to meet one of her sons at a family reunion in 2003, but has not seen him since. She said she cried so much that she ran out of tears and she cannot imagine reuniting with them again.