Hwang In-cheol was just two years old when his father went on a business trip and never returned. Nearly five decades later, North Korea’s recent outreach in the civil aviation space offers him a last spark of hope.
On December 11, 1969, Hwang Won, a journalist for broadcaster MBC, boarded, with a colleague, a routine domestic flight from Gangneung, a city on South Korea’s northeast coast, to Gimpo, the airport serving Seoul on the peninsula’s west.
The Korean Air Lines YS-11 – carrying 47 passengers and four crew on a route that took it close to North Korean airspace – would never reach its destination.
Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft was hijacked by one of the passengers, later established as being a North Korean agent. The plane landed near the city of Wonsan in the North. After an international outcry, 39 passengers were returned after two months via Panmunjom, reporting that they had been heavily indoctrinated.
Hwang, 32, was not among them. He, along with six other passengers and the four air-crew, never left the North. Returnees said that the abductees had resisted indoctrination. It is believed that Pyongyang needed their professional expertise in areas including broadcasting and flight operations.
It was the height of the Cold War in Asia. The United States and South Korea were heavily engaged in Vietnam, a war which was spilling across borders into Cambodia and Laos. In South Korea, US troops stationed on the peninsula called it “The Second Korean War.”
In 1968, North Korean commandos had infiltrated South Korea and assaulted the presidential Blue House in Seoul, in an attempt to kill President Park Chung-hee. North Korean naval assets had captured the spy ship USS Pueblo, seizing both the vessel – which remains moored in Pyongyang’s Daedong River to this day as a war trophy – and holding the crew hostage. Special forces infiltrated north and south. Firefights flared up across the Demilitarized Zone.
The seizure of the aircraft generated huge protests in Seoul. News reports at the time described the burning of an effigy of then-North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung.
But policy toward North Korea changed. Détente set in in 1972. Memories faded. The story went cold. The family members of the abductees, however, could never forget.
‘Superman’ and the escape that failed
On Tuesday – Parents Day – Hwang In-cheol, now 51 and speaking at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, held up a picture of his father Hwang Won. “This photo is the only connection I have left with my father, it is a course of constant comfort to me – of the fact that I had a father,” he said. “But it is also a source of great pain.”
Hwang is today the representative from the KAL Abductees’ Family Association. For three decades he has been hunting down information and trying to bring his father home.
In 1999, Hwang applied for a divided family reunion – infrequent and emotive affairs brokered by the Red Cross that unite families divided during and since the Korean War. In 2001, through the Red Cross, the mother of one of the stewardesses on KAL Flight YS-11 was granted an opportunity to meet her daughter in the North. She told her mother that the other stewardess, both flight crew, and the two MBC journalists were alive.
North Korea only responded to Hwang’s request in 2006, saying it was unable to confirm his father’s fate. Another request, sent by Hwang in 2011, received the response that anyone in North Korea lived there voluntarily.
Hwang was unconvinced. In 2012, he undertook a nationwide tour pleading with fellow citizens to assist, and promised his wife that this would his last year of campaigning. As the year-end approached, he tried a last gambit: A “broker.”
Following the near-collapse of the North Korean economy in the mid-1990s and the subsequent expansion of a market economy and widespread corruption, it became possible for well-connected, highly risk-tolerant individuals – often defectors themselves – to obtain information from inside North Korea and even to smuggle persons out, via the “Underground Railway” through China. They are called “brokers,” and they operate for a price.
Hwang enlisted the services of a broker in South Korea who was well reputed among human rights groups. He was nicknamed “Superman.” Through a complex arrangement that included a third party and mobile telephones relayed from North Korea, through China, to South Korea, Hwang was put into brief, indirect contact with his father. “If I had spoken directly to my father, I would probably have got really emotional and lost my mind,” Hwang said. The key points of the roundabout telephone conversation were to confirm his father’s identity – and whether he wanted out.
“I asked the person: ‘What is the name of my grandfather and grandmother? What is the name of my aunt?’” he recalled. The information returned was correct. Then, the big question: “I asked the person on the phone to find out if it was my father’s free will and desire to return home to South Korea.” The answer was affirmative.
A plan was hatched. Hwang Won would travel to the North Korean city of Sinuiju. From there, he would take a boat across the Yalu River to the Chinese city of Dandong, and thence to the South. But the timing was disastrous. As Hwang was in motion, North Korea conducted a nuclear test. All borders were closed. Hwang never made it across the river.
Official indifference and a last hope
In Seoul, his son was desperate. He went to the Unification Ministry and pleaded for help. The meeting grew heated. “This official shouted, ‘Do you know what this place is? How dare you act like this?’” Hwang was ejected from the building. “Since that time, I have been totally blocked,” he said. “Whenever I call the Unification Ministry, nobody answers.”
His government’s disinterest in his plight has embittered Hwang, particularly when he compares Seoul’s posture to the active lobbying Washington conducts to return US prisoners held in North Korea and Japan’s strong stance on abductees. In addition to the Unification Ministry, he has been turned away by the National Human Rights Commission.
“I believe the South Korean government is avoiding sensitive issues that could provoke North Korea, to minimize points of contention like mine, and downsize the seriousness of it,” he said. “That transitions into official policies in which human rights are not even mentioned.”
Indeed, despite last month’s cross-border bonhomie at the third inter-Korean summit, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s past career as a human rights lawyer, the Panmunjom Declaration is devoid of references to North Korean human rights. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “There were no firm decisions or promises, only hope – which is an exact repeat of the first and second summits.”
Hwang regrets that he has been too low-key. “I was not aggressive, I never destroyed government property or anything. But whether it is a conservative or liberal government, their attitude is the same,” he said. “Family members are trapped in a kind of glass cell. The government is only seeing what they want to see, only hearing what they want to hear.”
In March 2016, Hwang received further information that his father was still alive, though “his location was too tight to get other information” and his whereabouts unknown. Speaking with emotion, he said, “I admit I have a lot of fear in my heart that by revealing this information, I may be putting my father in graver danger.”
Today, his mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s. His father – assuming he is still alive – would be 80. Hwang knows that time is short. He has one last spark of hope.
Following the inter-Korean summit, Hwang came across what he calls “unexpected news”. In February, Pyongyang reached out to the International Civil Aviation Organization to request new flight routes.
In 1970, the ICAO passed a resolution calling for the return of all illegally seized aircraft with passengers, cargoes and crew. Hwang spotted leverage. He emailed the organization, requesting that they only grant North Korea new routes if the country honors that 1970 resolution.
He awaits their response.
“After waging my campaign all these years, I reached the conclusion that if I mirror others’ attitudes and just keep silent about my father’s plight, I, too, will be an accomplice to his suffering,” he said. “I hope that if we can resolve this one case, it will give hope to other victims and families. But at the end of day, I am just motivated to see my father before he passes away.”