1969 North Korea hijacking victim still alive, his son says

Hwang In-cheol's father was abducted in 1969 during a Korean Air Lines flight. His son has not stopped his quest to bring him home.
By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Dec. 28, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- A South Korean man who has petitioned his government for decades to bring his father home from North Korea says he has confirmation his father -- abducted in a plane hijacking in 1969 -- is alive.

Hwang In-cheol also says his activism in the South has prevented Pyongyang from harming his father, abducted nearly 50 years ago.

Hwang, who last saw his father when he was 2 years old, told UPI by Skype on Wednesday that he had tried to bring Hwang Won, 80, home in 2013. But a plan to smuggle him out of North Korea was scuttled following North Korea's third nuclear test.

The people who were going to retrieve his father more than four years ago recently confirmed his whereabouts.

"Father is still alive," Hwang said, adding that he is 80 years old and twice divorced.

Hwang Won was among the 50 people who were abducted while on board a Korean Air Lines flight that was hijacked to North Korea in 1969.

While most of the passengers and crew were released, 11 people including Hwang's father were detained for decades.

International pressure was credited for the release not long after the incident, and Hwang said his activism is working for his father in the North.

"The North Korean regime cannot touch my father," he said.

Hwang has previously requested a working group at the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate unreturned passengers.

He also says his father, out of his own free will, has expressed his wish to return home.

While South Koreans cannot directly contact those in the North, an underground network of activists and smugglers in China and North Korea has brought Hwang closer to his father.

One South Korean activist, who has earned the nickname "Superman" among defectors, played a particularly important role in the 2013 defection attempt, Hwang says.

The activist was one of the first people to confirm Hwang Won's whereabouts and offered to help with repatriation in March 2013.

"If he says yes, I will do the utmost to bring him home," Hwang In-cheol said, recalling the initial encounter with the man who would attempt to smuggle Hwang Won, using contacts in the North Korean city of Sinuiju and Dandong, China.

But following North Korea's third nuclear test around Feb. 12, 2013, sanctions shuttered maritime channels, Hwang said.

"My father could not get on a boat."

Hwang, who is now 50, struggled at home as a child.

His family, left feeling helpless about the North Korean abduction, would tell Hwang his father "would be home for Christmas" for years, until Hwang realized his father was not coming home.

They would later tell Hwang his father, a television producer, likely resisted his North Korean captors, and would point the finger at his father's temperament for not being released on time.

"They would say it was impossible for him to bow before a photograph of Kim Il Sung," Hwang said, recalling the stories his family would tell him.

Hwang would later amend feelings of helplessness with independent activism, a grass-roots movement that has gained international recognition.

Other South Korean families of hijacking victims supported Hwang's quest to eventually meet his father, as North-South relations began to thaw under then-President Kim Dae-jung.

A breakthrough came in 2001, when the mother of abducted South Korean flight attendant Seong Kyeong-hee met her daughter at a reunion in the North.

Seong's mother was able to confirm for the first time Hwang's father was safe at a location, that about a decade later was identified as a place "120 miles from Sinuiju, and 60 miles from Pyongyang."

Lack of cooperation from North Korea has been frustrating, Hwang said.

In 2006, the North Korean Red Cross said they could "not confirm" whether Hwang's father was dead or alive, and later refused to take a phone call at Panmunjom, while rejecting letters from the South Korean Red Cross.

But neither has the South Korean government taken kindly to Hwang's cause.

The activist has been banned from protesting near Seoul government buildings, and said he blamed the indifference of government officials for the situation.

"They won't reclassify my father's case outside of separated family reunions," Hwang said.

"I have to see him."

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