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South Korean Returns Home 31 Years After Alleged Abduction by North

A South Korean man who was abducted by North Korean agents more than three decades ago has arrived in Seoul. South Koreans, who helped him return, say delicate but persistent diplomacy brought him home - but they say many other abducted South Koreans are not so lucky. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Now in his late 60s and graying, Choi Uk-il stepped off an airplane Tuesday - setting foot on South Korean soil for the first time in 31 years.

He was captured years ago from his fishing boat by North Korean agents.

Choi Sung-yong, an activist who worked to help Choi Uk-il return, was at the Incheon airport to greet him.

He says Choi's son and two daughters erupted in tears at seeing him again. He says they described the day as a great stroke of fortune.

He adds Choi is suffering from pneumonia and looks very thin - as thin, he says, as when the two met in China shortly after Choi Uk-il's escape from the North.

South Korean officials say North Korea captured about 400 of the South's citizens in the decades following the two countries' war in the 1950s. They assume Pyongyang used the abductees mainly for instructing North Korean spies about life in the South.

North Korea denies kidnapping any of the South's citizens, saying any South Koreans in the North came there willingly. The Pyongyang government, however, has admitted kidnapping several Japanese citizens, five of whom were allowed to return to Japan a few years ago. The Japanese government says several more of its people were snatched by North Korean agents and has repeatedly demanded a fuller accounting of them.

Here in South Korea, the abductee debate is a flashpoint between those who say Seoul should demand action on the issue from Pyongyang and those who support the gentler North Korean engagement policy favored by President Roh Moo-hyun.

Critics say the South Korean government is reluctant to confront Pyongyang about abductees and many remain trapped in the North. Choi initially received little support from South Korean diplomats in China, leading his family to protest at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.

Choi Uk-il left behind a wife and children in North Korea because they could not all escape at once. Pyongyang has often punished the family members of people who seek to escape the North's extreme deprivation and repression.

Choi Sung-yong, the abductee activist, says Choi will not return directly to his hometown, but will spend several weeks being debriefed by South Korean authorities.