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Former North Korean Abductee Waits for Legal Existence After Returning to South


One of the most serious side issues in multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program is Pyongyang's history of abducting Japanese citizens. Officials in Seoul think North Korea also has abducted about 500 South Koreans since the Korean War. One recently returned South Korean abductee tells VOA's Kurt Achin his story.

67-year-old Choi Uk-il has a frequent cough and other health problems, but has not been able to go to hospital because, legally, he does not exist.

For most of the last 32 years, South Korean government records have listed Choi as a dead man.

But Choi spent those years in North Korea, after he was kidnapped in August 1975 off the coast of South Korea.

He says a North Korean vessel approached the boat he and other South Koreans were on while they were fishing in international waters. They were shot at twice, forced into North Korean waters and abducted.

Choi, then 35-years-old, says he was well treated at first, and thought he would be sent back to South Korea within months to spread an enticing message of how good life was in the North.

Instead, Choi was put to work as a farmer, and given a rigorous political education.

He says he spent many hours studying every word of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and current leader, Kim Jong Il.

The Kims are revered as demigods under the North's authoritarian system.

North Korea has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s, and forcing them to help train spies. Five were allowed to return to Japan a few years ago, but Pyongyang says the others are dead. Tokyo wants more information on their fate, and that of several other people believed to have been snatched by North Korean agents.

The Seoul government thinks the North has snatched as many as 500 South Koreans since the war between the two ended in 1953. Most were fishermen taken at sea. Pyongyang, however, says any South Koreans living in the North are there voluntarily and denies kidnapping anyone from the South.

Choi says he endured all of the food deprivation and poverty most North Koreans experienced due to Pyongyang's economic isolation and mismanagement.

For Yang Jung-ja, the wife he left behind in the South, life alone with their four young children was hard.

She says she was out of her mind with sadness. She found it extremely difficult to find a place to live with very little money and no husband.

Choi says he never forgot his wife, but after years in the North he married a North Korean woman and had two children. Choi says he has no idea what has happened to them since his return to the South but is sure they have suffered.

He says when abductees or defectors manage to return to the South quietly, their families have been severely punished. Choi says his case was so high profile that it must have angered Pyongyang.

His televised tearful reunion with his family in the South was the culmination of a process that started in 1998, when Choi was able to write to Yang that he was still alive.

One day about four months ago, he told his North Korean family he was "going downtown". Instead, he boarded a train bound for the Chinese border. After passing through 13 military checkpoints, Choi jumped off the train and crossed into China on foot on December 25.

He immediately contacted South Korean officials - and says he got a dismissive reception.

He says a South Korean embassy official told him he would receive a phone call. It never came.

Choi speaks with gratitude about his wife, Yang, who brought a South Korean reporter to China. Together, they splashed his story in the media. After that, says Choi, his treatment by South Korean officials changed dramatically.

Advocacy groups say South Korea does not pressure Pyongyang about the abductees, because it wants to avoid upsetting the North. Yang says South Korea must do more for the abductees.

She says all of the money and human effort that led to bringing her husband home came from private, not government, sources. She gives special credit to Choi Sung-young, a prominent South Korean activist for abductees.

After all he has been through, Choi is angry.

He says he does not direct the anger at North or South Korea but says it as a solitary, personal kind of anger.

Choi says he has no idea when South Korea will finish processing the paperwork that will essentially resurrect him from the dead, and give him access to the national health care system. He says he hopes it is soon.