Hwang In Cheol has spent most of his adult life fighting for the return of his father, who was abducted by the North Korean government on December 11, 1969. Mr. Hwang was two years old, and his father was thirty-two
At the Freedom Bridge between North and South Korea, during a recent rally for the return of his father, Hwang In Cheol sings a traditional Korean song about missing your home, longing for your hometown. His voice is soothing and stable, almost as if a breeze could carry it, a metaphorical reach across the world’s most militarized border to try and connect with his father. The lyrics of the song are the last words any South Korean has heard from former MBC television producer Hwang Won. While imprisoned against his will in North Korea, he sang the song in protest. In response, North Korean government officials dragged him away; no one has seen him since.
All the while, Hwang In Cheol has spent most of his adult life fighting for the return of his father, who was abducted by the North Korean government on December 11, 1969. Mr. Hwang was two years old, and his father was thirty-two. On that day, a North Korean agent hijacked Korean Airlines Plane (KAL) YS-11 while en route to Seoul, taking 50 people with him across the border into North Korea. Since then, 39 of the people have been returned, the remaining eleven’s fate still unknown.
The South Korean government has taken little direct action to push the North Korean government to return the remaining victims, even though their abduction, in addition to the abduction of hundreds of other South Koreans, has been called a “critical humanitarian concern” by the South Korean Unification Ministry. His father’s abduction during the KAL YS-11 flight has been registered under the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) since 2010. Yet, forty-seven years later, Hwang Won is one of eleven passengers and crew still held by North Korea; the government has not revealed their fate, nor acknowledged their abduction.
As a result of this “mythic wound” to quote Dean Young, and corresponding lack of action by the North Korean government, Hwang in Cheol has made it his mission to advocate for his father’s return. In 2001, he began holding demonstrations at the inter-Korean family reunions, and in 2010 he led one-man demonstrations. He has also worked in conjunction with several NGOs and created different petitions. Since May 2016, he has been working with Teach North Korean Refugees, an NGO in Seoul. Through this collaboration, he has launched a new website and his latest petition, which is addressed to current U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, has been written and translated into eight different languages. Together, these comprise his #BringMyFatherHome campaign.
The letter to Ban Ki Moon outlines the case and provides a history of government (in)action; Mr. Hwang also states the policy foundation enabling the U.N. to take action and ensure the return of his father. In the English translation of the letter, he calls the issue “the justice of our times” and advocates for the actions ensured by U.N. Security Council Resolution 286, which regards the international hijacking of civil air travel.
Mr. Hwang’s letter mirrors the strategy he has been using to conduct his advocacy campaign: determined, resolute, from the heart. He appeals to both the international and legal frameworks to call upon the action of states and also to the hearts of their people in order to elicit action and spread his message. At rallies and panels when asked to share his story, he asks for others to empathize with his situation, and to, to quote his letter, “[…] imagine what you would do if your plane was hijacked by a North Korean sleeper agent and you were forced onto North Korean territory against your will, if you were coerced to become a North Korean citizen without having a chance to ever speak your own mind, and if you were eternally split from the loving arms of your [family]”.
In spite of the law being on the side of Mr. Hwang, much of his journey to bring his father home has, until recently, been alone. His campaign, which had become a full-time job that didn’t support his children, had driven a wedge between himself and his family. This became all the more agonizing during his one-man demonstrations to bring his father home at inter-Korean family reunions: while other families were able to reunite with their loved ones, his family remained splintered, divided across the border. Moreover, the North Korean government denied Hwang Won’s abduction and Mr. Hwang’s case was mired in U.N. bureaucracy.
Recently, Mr. Hwang’s #BringMyFatherHome campaign has picked up significant momentum. In June, he held a rally at the Freedom Bridge near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, with attendees from several different countries. In July, the WGEID called upon the North Korean government to release information about fourteen South Korean abductees, including a crew member on KAL YS-11. In August, Mr. Hwang is visiting Mexico, Chile, and Argentina to raise awareness of his case. Additionally, on August 30, the U.N.’s designated International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Mr. Hwang’s campaign will hold an event in Seoul at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and visit the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to push for further action.
On August 30, the designated International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Mr. Hwang’s case is one of many that are being given due attention. On this day, though, what is also important to remember that as critical as it is to honor the victims of enforced disappearances, we must also celebrate those who don’t lose hope for reunions with their loved ones, for those who fight on their behalf to keep their stories and struggles alive; we must honor their resilience and grit.
It is easy, and significantly less painful, to look at these government abductions from a political, distanced standpoint, away from the horrors of these situations with concepts considered abstract, such as “political repression,” transitional justice,” and even the name of the crime itself, “enforced disappearances.” It leaves the actions required to those who have political power, and allows us to feel comfortable with our silence if we so choose to be. Yet, if we seek the return of these victims, we must rally together in support of the issue. We must continue our advocacy in whatever ways we can. We must keep the past alive and use it to inform action in the future. Hwang In Cheol does this daily in his own campaign, in his refusal to forget the crime against his father.
Three and a half months shy of the 47th anniversary of the plane’s hijacking, it is hoped that on this day to commemorate those who have been taken against their will, Mr. Hwang, too, is able to move forward in achieving his lifelong dream. Hwang In Cheol’s request is simple: he merely wants to see his father, say, “I love you, Dad, and I’ve missed you,” words which he has never been able to say to his father directly. Hopefully this will happen soon, on the Freedom Bridge between the divided Koreas, Hwang In Cheol released from a lifetime of anguish and despair, and Hwang Won released from more than half a lifetime of government imprisonment against his will with no cause.
Note from the Author: On behalf of Mr. Hwang’s campaign, I invite you to check out his website and to please sign his petition on Change.org – it would mean the world if we reached the goal of 500 signatures on August 30! Thank you!
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Pax Politica’s editorial policy.
Feature Image Credit: Edward N. Johnson for the U.S. Army, Korean Demilitarized Zone via Flickr Creative Commons.