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Human rights groups call on Seoul to address North’s captives

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An elderly woman reaches out for a photo of a family member taken by North Korea at the National Memorial Hall of the Korean War Abductees in Paju, northern Gyeonggi, on June 28. [YONHAP]
An elderly woman reaches out for a photo of a family member taken by North Korea at the National Memorial Hall of the Korean War Abductees in Paju, northern Gyeonggi, on June 28. [YONHAP]

South Korea’s new unification minister, Kim Yung-ho, will meet this week with the heads of civic groups dedicated to bringing home people held against their will in North Korea, his office said Wednesday.

The announcement came the same day that advocates of individuals abducted or detained by the North penned an open letter to President Yoon Suk Yeol, urging him to raise the issue at his upcoming summit at Camp David with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose countries’ nationals have also been held against their will by the North.

Kim, a hawkish scholar who previously served as a human rights envoy prior to his appointment as unification minister, made remarks in the past arguing that North Korea needs to be pressured to improve its human rights situation, an issue the regime has especially bristled over.

Pyongyang has detained and abducted South Koreans and foreign nationals over several decades since the 1950-53 Korean War to bolster the North’s human capital, propaganda efforts and intelligence capabilities, as well as to destabilize the South, according to a report by the Asan Institute in 2018.

The United Nations Command estimated during the war that over 82,000 South Korean soldiers had gone missing in action or been captured by communist forces, but the North and China only ever returned 8,763 South Korean soldiers through prisoner of war (POW) exchanges.

Up to 50,000 South Korean POWs were never repatriated despite the terms of the armistice, according to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

But a total of 80 South Korean POWs detained by the North have managed to escape to the South from 1994 to 2010, indicating the survival of others. The South Korean government estimates that 560 POWs still survive in the North, based on analysis of various testimonies from defectors and former POWs who managed to escape North Korea.

In addition to unrepatriated POWs, 3,835 South Korean civilians have been abducted by the North since the end of the war. Of this number, 3,319 were released or successfully escaped back to the South, leaving 516 who have never returned.

At least six South Koreans, including three pastors, have been taken to North Korea from China since 2013 and sentenced to prison for conducting activities that the North considers anti-state crimes.

In their letter issued on Wednesday, human rights advocates called on President Yoon to discuss the issue of people held involuntarily in the North as part of the agenda of his summit with Biden and Kishida and push for the issue’s inclusion in their joint statement.

Washington and Tokyo have also grappled with Pyongyang’s history of abducting or detaining their nationals.

The U.S. government has tried and failed in the past two weeks to receive information from the North about the status of Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, who ran across the inter-Korean border into the North while on a group tour of the Joint Security Area.

Otto Warmbier, the last U.S. national to be released after being detained by the North, died in 2017 after falling into a year-long coma during his imprisonment.

While Tokyo officially recognizes 17 Japanese nationals as abductees, the Japan’s national police agency suspects as many as 871 individuals may have been kidnapped by the North.

The civic groups also urged Yoon to lead diplomatic efforts to secure the immediate return of survivors, as well as the repatriation of remains of those who died during their captivity.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]