SEOUL - Human rights and abductee advocacy groups say time is running out for many desperate and frustrated South Korean families seeking to resolve the fate of loved ones abducted by North Korea.
These abduction cases remain unresolved, as escalating inter-Korean tensions over the North's nuclear program have blocked any cooperation on humanitarian issues.
South Korean groups representing the abductee families appealed this week to the media in Seoul to keep the issue alive. They complain that their own government has forsaken them to prioritize either engaging or pressuring the North to halt its nuclear program.
"It hurts my heart that there is nothing we can do," said Lee Mi-il.
Lee's father, a factory owner in Seoul, was taken by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. She was 18 months old at the time and is now in her late sixties. Lee has spent her life trying to bring her father and other abductees home as president of the Korean War Abductees' Family Union.
Cold war casualties
After the end of fighting, North Korea returned most prisoners-of-war, but reportedly forced thousands of South Korean citizens to remain, to help rebuild national industries, schools and other basic state functions. And in the decades after, thousands more were believed to abducted by North Korea. Most of them were fishermen, who were purportedly taken to gain intelligence or serve some propaganda purpose in the ongoing inter-Korean cold war.
Some were detained for political reasons or because their backgrounds were suspect. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, approximately 30 South Korea soldiers fighting with U.S. troops were captured by North Vietnamese forces, and later sent to North Korea, according to the group The Family Union of the Vietnam War POW and Abductee.
In 1969, Hwang In-cheol's father was among the 47 passengers and crew aboard a Korea Air (KAL) airliner that was hijacked into North Korea. Most were released under intense international pressure, but 11 of them, including Hwang's father, who was a journalist and outspoken critic of the then Kim Il Sung regime, were not allowed to return nor permitted to communicate with their families.
"If your family member was abducted and you could not find out the status of the family member, and could not find a solution to resolve the problem, or didn't know about the pain your family member was having, can you imagine how painful this situation would be?" asked Hwang.
For almost two decades, Hwang has advocated for the return of his father and other abductees as a representative of the KAL Abductees' Repatriation Committee.
Today over 500 Korean victims are still being held in the North, and of that number 300 are more than 70 years old, according to the Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), an advocacy group that has worked closely on this issue with victims' families and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID.)
Families of abductees forsaken
In the wake of North Korea's fourth nuclear test last year, the Seoul government suspended all remaining cooperative programs, including inter-Korean family reunions, and cut all lines of communication with Pyongyang.
The abductee families say South Korea is treating them as inconvenient casualties of the division of Korea, and is unwilling to negotiate for their release. But their anguish propels them forward, and they refuse to stop trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, to bring them home alive or have their remains sent to family burial sites.
Choi Sung-yong presumes his father, who was abducted in the 1950s, is now dead. He leads the Representative of the Abductee's Family Union. While Choi understands South Korea's national security concerns, he said the government could at least privately share with families whatever information it has on the abductees.
"The National Intelligence Service should find out how the abductee is doing and for example, who the abductee got married to, and when he or she died," said Choi.
Letter to President Trump
Lee Jae-ho has been waiting for 60 years to find out what happened to his father, who he said was abducted during the Korean War. He even wrote a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump to intercede on his behalf, as his father was a patriot that helped the Americans during the war.
"I would like to ask if the U.S. can try to confirm the status of abductees and the repatriation of corpses. There is no way to find this out in South Korea. I have seen in reports in the U.S. media that corpses of U.S. soldiers were repatriated from North Korea," he said.
It is unlikely President Trump will take up the issue. But Lee said he is so frustrated with South Korea's unwillingness or inability to help, he does not know where else to turn.
When contacted through the United Nations, North Korea has been uncooperative and has denied charges of forced disappearances and abductions, saying people are not being forced to stay in the country against their will.
North Korea also stands accused of abducting a number of foreign nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, and admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens who were reportedly used to train spies.
An agreement between Japan and North Korea to ease some sanctions in exchange for an investigation into the status of abduction victims fell apart in the last year over Pyongyang's lack of cooperation and its continued testing of nuclear weapons.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.