In South Korea, In-cheol Hwang is one of many protesters. Yet, his cause is very singular. His life-long efforts concern his father who was kidnapped in 1969 by the North Korean regime. One month before the Pyeongchang Olympics, The Sun plunges you into the great human story behind a forgotten diplomatic incident between the two Koreas.
In the streets and subway of Seoul, millions of workers and students are moving quickly. They all seem to walk in a rush, with hurried footsteps, their eyes are often glued to their smartphones.
South Koreans are shaped by the hyper-competitive society that surrounds them. They live in the snapshot. The past belongs to museums. The past, it is the Chinese and Japanese occupation. It is the Korean War, then a country torn in its center, destroyed and poor.
In this human tide that submerges Seoul every day, more than a hundred thousand people have already met In-cheol Hwang. Most without realizing it. They went around him on the subway, maybe, or they looked away when walking by his poster on a sidewalk. He is not the only protester in town, after all. There are hundreds, every day, clustered downtown, camping for one cause or another.
Since 2001, In-cheol, 50 years old, has demonstrated alone in the streets of the capital several hundred times. He addresses the unbelieving passersby to tell them about the tragedy of his life: a plane hijacking that occurred in 1969.
Fifteen years to be ignored, according to the main party. In-cheol Hwang, however, has only one claim: that his father should return to South Korean soil, 48 years after being kidnapped by the North Korean regime.
His fight is constantly facing the same problem. A crumbled collective memory that has no concern with the injustices of the past. How could a simple, uneducated worker succeed in settling a half-century old diplomatic incident?
“It would have been so much easier if I had found a good reason to give up, but I always come to the same conclusion. If I give up just because it’s too difficult, I will not be different from those governments and the society that I blame for ignoring and forgetting about my father’s situation.”
In-cheol would probably still be in the street, smashed, standing there with a protest poster in hand, trying to collect signatures at the bottom of a petition, had it not been for a Texan and unexpected help from the nonprofit organization of the latter, an English school for North Korean refugees.
I. THE HIJACKING
On December 11, 1969, Won Hwang, a TV producer for the South Korean MBC network, boarded a domestic flight to Seoul plane at Gangneung Airport, a coastal town in northeastern South Korea some 80 kilometers from the northern border.
In a poor and rebuilding country, Won, 31, was doing surprisingly well. His job at MBC put him in a relatively affluent social class and allowed him to take care of his wife and two young children. His son, In-Cheol, was 2 years old. His daughter, Chan-wook, had been born a few months earlier.
Won was not supposed to be travelling to Seoul, but because of a scheduling conflict, his boss asked him to go to a meeting at the head office of the television network in his place.
At 12:25, a Korean Airlines YS-11 plane left Gangneung airport with four crew members and 47 passengers on board. In the minutes after take-off, the plane dropped off radar screens. The South Korean authorities were trying to determine what happened while the flight was still expected at Gimpo Airport in Seoul.
Did the plane crash? The hypothesis was quickly dismissed. After a few hours, the real story began to emerge. The plane was hijacked to North Korea. Sixteen years after the signing of a truce ending the Korean War (1950-1953), the two Koreas were still at loggerheads. But North Korea has just crossed a dangerous line.
Months later, the passenger testimonials would help determine what really happened on the flight. Ten minutes after takeoff, a passenger who was a North Korean sleeper agent burst into the cockpit. He demanded the plane fly to North Korea. The flight path was changed as three North Korean army fighter jets joined the aircraft to escort it to Sondok Airport on North Korean east coast. After a hard landing, soldiers invaded the aircraft. They blindfolded passengers before leading them off the plane.
The news of the hijacking spread around the world. Two days after the incident, North Korean radio broadcast a message from the two pilots of the plane. They said they fled to North Korea voluntarily. It was hard to believe that they spoke voluntarily. The international community strongly condemned the North Korean government.
On the evening of December 12, some 100,000 South Koreans gathered in the cold night of Seoul to demand the return of the 50 captives. Watched by international media, protesters burned a puppet of North Korean Head of State Kim Il-sung.
Under pressure at the end of December, the latter accepted a negotiation meeting with South Korea for the release of the hostages. During the negotiations held a month later, the North Korean authorities agreed to repatriate the four crew members and 46 passengers.
However, on February 14, 1970, only 39 of the captured passengers were released at the border of the Panmunjom joint military base in the demilitarized zone which separates the two countries. No explanation was given by North Korea for the four crew members and seven passengers that were not released.
They all had specific professional skills, ranging from cameraman to hospital director. One of them was the TV producer Won Hwang.
Several of the released passengers reported being subjected to daily indoctrination sessions during their 66 days of captivity. The goal of such sessions was to convince them of the superiority of North Korean communism. One of the captives was particularly resistant to North Korean propaganda, according to two different testimonies reported by the newspapers of the time.
“When we were forced to attend indoctrination classes, Mr. Won Hwang refuted their communist theories one by one. Soldiers dragged him outside the room, and he did not return until 14 days later. On New Year’s Day, Mr. Hwang sang a song about his desire to go home and the soldiers dragged him away again. That was the last time we saw him,” said one of the released hostages.
North Korea presents a very different version to the Red Cross when the international body formally requested the return of the 11 missing passengers. They remain in North Korea “at their own will,” the regime says again.
The Red Cross asks Kim Il-sung that a neutral representative travel to North Korea to confirm the detainees’ wishes, but that petition was denied.
At the beginning of 1970, resolutions were adopted by the Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly to force North Korea to repatriate the hostages. In July, the International Civil Aviation Organization, in turn, passed a motion calling for the return of all prisoners of hijacking or boating, but Pyongyang turned a deaf ear.
Faced with the failure of the steps, the fate of the 11 passengers was quietly forgotten.
At the turn of the 70s, South Korea was still far from the economic power it would become 20 years later. The country is just starting to recover from the war. A war that ended in a fragile truce. One can not risk, in the context, a new conflict breaking out.
“The 1969 hijacking is the kind of incident that could have led to a new war. I think that’s why we quickly forgot it. The South Korean government decided to sacrifice some people, including my father, to save the entire population from another war. It was a conscious decision that was taken at the time to ignore a criminal act of North Korea,” said In-cheol Hwang.
II. Dad is on a Business Trip
Until the age of 13, In-cheol Hwang knew nothing about the hijacking. “When I asked my mother where my father was, she told me that he was on a business trip to the United States. Except he never came back. “
For years, his mother refuses to leave the house. A heavy burden for the child. “I had a ban on social activities. Many people thought I was going to be an idiot because I could not do anything. It was difficult.” he recalls.
In 1980, one of his uncles decided to tell him the truth without his mother’s consent. His father was not really in the United States; rather, he was being held somewhere in North Korea. “I was young, but I understood that day that it would be very difficult to see my father again one day.”
In-cheol regretted that his mother hid the truth from him. He describes her as a dejected woman who has lived, since 1969, only a shadow of a life.
Even today, 48 years after his forced departure to North Korea, Won Hwang is officially employed by MBC Gangneung. At the time, the television network’s management committed to continuing to pay a salary to the family of its abducted employee.
According to In-cheol Hwang, maintaining his father’s position at MBC was more than economic value for his mother. It was the hope that he would come back one day and that life would resume.
“My mother always waited for my father’s return. She said he would need a job when he came back. “
In high school, In-cheol learned not to ignore the tragic fate of his father. The South Korean company gradually adopted the official North Korean version of the incident. The opposite would be to admit that South Korea had abandoned 11 of its citizens.
“My teachers asked me what happened to my father. I said he was kidnapped by North Korea. They took me in front of everyone saying, ‘You mean that he voluntarily fled to North Korea.'”
The situation continued as In-cheol moved into adulthood. He hardly talked about his father’s situation, fearing persecution.
“During the first part of my life, I wondered why I was alive. What was my goal on Earth? I felt there was something I had to do, but I did not know yet what that was. My twenties were chaotic, but I eventually decided to live my life in a way that would not shame my father. After getting married, I lived a normal life… until 2001.
III. THE HISTORICAL MEETING
On June 13 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung arrived in Pyongyang for a historic summit with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-Il. For the first time since the end of the war in 1953, the leaders of the two Koreas met.
The three-day summit ended with a handshake and a toast between the two heads of state. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-Il signed an important deal for Koreans. On the one hand, the rich South Korea would offer economic aid to its neighbor. An approach called The Sunshine Policy. On the other hand, the two Koreas would work together to reunite families separated by war. There were hundreds of thousands on either side of the border who had not been able to see their fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, or children for half a century.
More than 76,000 South Koreans wanting to see a loved one in North Korea applied. The list of eligible candidates was then forwarded by the Red Cross to the North Korean government, which confirmed a fraction of those whose relatives were still alive. Finally, a lottery determined the 200 South Koreans who could met their relatives.
On August 15, a plane flanked by the starry red flag of the Kim Jong-Il regime landed on the tarmac at Gimpo Airport, Seoul, with 100 passengers. They had three days in South Korea at a specified location with their relatives. The plane left with a hundred South Koreans who would be reunited with one or more relatives in Pyongyang.
Three days later, everyone must said goodbye probably for the last time. Older couples burst into tears and hugged and agreed the reunion was worth the effort. After a life of turmoil, they could now die in peace.
In-cheol Hwang could only imagine that feeling. He submitted his candidacy but was not selected. A meeting with relatives of the other passengers of the YS-11 was organized for the occasion. For the first time in his life, In-cheol could talk about the kidnapping of his father with people who understood him.
Hope returned. Faced with the success of the first meeting event of divided families, the Red Cross and the governments of the two Koreas decide to repeat the experience.
A few months later, the mother of Kyung-hee Sung, a YS-11 stewardess, won the lottery to determine who could next be reunited with relatives residing in North Korea. She would be reunited with her daughter some 31 years after the hijacking.
The touching mother-daughter encounter was captured by South Korean cameras in Pyongyang on February 26, 2001. A report recalling the tragic fate of the 11 captives of the YS-11 was broadcast for the occasion.
Sitting at home, In-cheol, who had become a father, looked at everything on his television with his two-year-old daughter on his knees. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“My daughter was the same age I was when my father was kidnapped. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Something I would not trade for anything in the world. I still had this pain in me having my father kidnapped. But on that day, another even more intense pain was added. I imagined how my father must have felt, a parent forcibly separated from his children.”
“Viewing those images radically changed my life. That day, I decided that I absolutely had to see my father again.”
IV. THE FRIGHTFUL SILENCE
In his spare time, In-cheol Hwang began collecting newspaper clippings, book excerpts, and testimonies proving that his father was illegally detained. He sought international law articles that supported his claims. North Korea had been holding hostages for several decades, but it needed to be proven.
In parallel, the young father protested alone when he had the opportunity, trying to raise awareness of his compatriots to his cause. Easier said than done. The younger generation had never heard of the hijacking. In their collective memory, it was buried under several decades of other diplomatic incidents between the two Koreas.
In-cheol Hwang joined a South Korean group of families of abduction victims. But with that group, his cause was relegated to the background due to the more recent kidnappings of fishermen in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea.
Under its expansion, an association formed only of relatives of the captives of the YS-11 was formed. However, the process disappeared after a few years due to the inability of the group to make its claims heard.
At irregular intervals, meetings of Korean families continued. Each time, In-cheol Hwang hoped to be one of the lucky ones. Each time, success eluded him. He asked for explanations from the Red Cross. In 2006, it finally relayed an official response from the North Korean government. His application was declared inadmissible because it was impossible to confirm if his father was still alive. That answer, which In-cheol had waited six years for, enraged answer him.
The information available to him suggested that his father was still alive in the 1990s. A call received at the time from a South Korean secret service agent told him, on condition of anonymity, that his father was employed by a North Korean propaganda television. A post that would have been logical considering his experience as a TV producer in South Korea.
In-cheol intensified his efforts. He went to the National Assembly and various government buildings weekly, but he failed to meet with senior officials. He sent letters to international organizations without response. He wrote petitions demanding the return of his father and he roamed the streets of Seoul in search of signatures.
“Everyone told me I was crazy. Simply crazy. I was thought ridiculous. My wife was the sole exception. From the beginning, she told me that what I was trying to do was right.”
But after a few years, In-cheol Hwang’s family became discouraged. The cause was poorly publicized and morale was low. “For each of my events that received some media coverage, there were at least 100 that nobody talked about.”
Between minimum wage jobs and his fight to find his father, he struggled to make ends meet. In debt, he become a credit risk in the eyes of the banks. That low credit rating prevented him from getting any kind of loan. In-cheol felt stuck. Through his struggle, he was destroying his own family. “I had to make a choice.”
He stopped the demonstrations and tried to accept that he would never see his father again. Then he changed his mind. He could not shut up and stop.
During a meeting of families of captives from North Korea, he managed to talk with the South Korean Deputy Minister at the Unification. The latter explained that relations with North Korea were too sensitive and important for his government to bring back an old diplomatic incident such as the hijacking of aircraft.
In-cheol did not give up. He listed his father as a captive with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In 2012, he began a tour of events across different South Korean cities. 15,000 signatures were added to his petition.
“My wife was skeptical that these signatures would change anything. But for me, those signatures were hope.”
With that new hope, he felt that his cause was moving forward. But slowly, hope faded. His struggle for his father swallowed him up. “I felt that I was doomed to fight all my life without anyone really listening to me,” he recalls, before quoting Martin Luther King Jr.:
It is against this appalling silence that In-cheol Hwang has lived. “It was like I was on a thin path, completely in the dark. There was no way out. I could not go back, but going forward was also scary. I was alone in the cold of loneliness,” he describes. “I felt like that until I met Casey.”
V. THE TEXAN WHO DREAMED OF A BETTER WORLD
Casey Lartigue Jr. was 12 years old when, in the comfort of his home in Texas, he read Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies. In his writings, the former slave turned leader of the American abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century stresses the importance for everyone to control their own lives. The importance, too, of freedom of movement. The universal right to move. “His words moved me from a young age,” says Casey, himself an African-American.
More than a decade later, that Texan found himself on the benches of Harvard University, finishing as a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “So many of my classmates talked about working at the United Nations or at UNESCO. I used to say, “Where are the people in all these big plans? Where does the individual have autonomy” There was no answer to that because the structure of these big organizations work from top to bottom. “
Shaped by the writings of Frederick Douglass, Casey Lartigue is opposed to the idea of determining for others, especially the oppressed, what is best for them. “If you are in a position to design a program helping others, then it needs to be designed so that people still have power. Individuals need power to choose for themselves. “
After Harvard, he taught English abroad, then returned to the United States to accept an education analyst position at the Cato Institute. He became known for helping to create an education scholarship program for disadvantaged youth in Washington DC, bringing his case to the US Congress.
In 2011, the Texan accepted a think tank offer in Seoul. His Korean adventure quickly took an unexpected turn.
In early 2012, about thirty North Korean fugitives on the run were caught by the Chinese authorities. As the agreement between the two allies, the refugees would be sent back to North Korea.
“There were demonstrations in Seoul against the Chinese embassy. After participating in a few, I started recruiting expats so that more people could join, to show it wasn’t just South Koreans and North Korean refugees who cared about this case, “says Casey Lartigue.
A turning point came when he met Park Sun-young, a South Korean MP who had started a hunger strike in response to the arrest of North Korean refugees in China. The American introduced himself to Prof. Park, pledging to do more to help North Korean refugees. “She had no idea who I was. She asked me to be a teacher at the new school she was starting for North Korean refugees. I said no, because I was not a teacher. I told her that instead of teaching that I could volunteers eager to teach. “
Casey decided to start his own English project helping North Korean refugees. Instead of adults, it would be for North Korean refugee adults who dream of a career in South Korea or internationally, who want to tell their story, but are hampered by their inability to speak the language of Shakespeare.
He built his organization as he had always imagined humanitarian aid. It gives freedom of choice to the refugees. “In our program, refugees choose their language helpers and mentors. They also choose what they want to study. They feel good because they enter the room and they know that people there are waiting for the chance to work for them and that they have the power to choose who will help them. So many refugees told us it was the first time in their lives that they had a choice. “
A few years after the creation of the project, Casey Lartigue now devotes full time to Teaching North Korea Refugees (TNKR), which he co-founded with South Korean researcher Eunkoo Lee. He has been offered positions in major international organizations. He chose his small organization, raising money on his own and rarely sleeping.
“I always do what interests me. It’s my life. I go where I want to go without following a pre-established course. “
Just spend a few minutes with him to understand that 24 hours are not enough to complete his days. He has no time for futile discussions. Send him an email, you will receive an automated answer apologizing in advance for the time of his answer. The reason is simple: Casey is, like TNKR, always active, busy, doing something.
The organization’s office is not likely to be confused with those of the United Nations. At the end of an alley off a major thoroughfare in Seoul, the small organization struggles to meet the demands of refugees. When too many of them want to take a class at the same time, Casey gives up his office and goes to work at a nearby café, as he did on this day. “The place is theirs first.”
In the context, it may seem difficult to understand why the tiny organization and its co-founder, since April 2016, have embarked on a complex international diplomacy dossier concerning the hijacking of an aircraft in 1969.
VI. UNUSED SUPPORT
It is a coincidence that the fates of Casey Lartigue and In-cheol Hwang met in March 2016 when TNKR co-hosted a workshop to highlight the work of Seoul-based humanitarian organizations.
“One of the six organizations that we wanted to present was very slow in confirming. We began considering others when our colleagues from the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) recommended the representative of the families of the 1969 hijacking. “
Casey had heard about it but had not read about it in detail. Listening to In-cheol Hwang speak, he immediately decided to get involved.
“I thought, ‘He’s been fighting like this mostly alone for 15 years? I must do something.'”
The tragic fate of Won Hwang touched a chord with the Harvard graduate: the writings of Frederick Douglass. The captives of flight YS-11 have been deprived for nearly 50 years of the universal right to move.
At the end of the day, seminar participants were invited to volunteer with the organizations. Several people shared their contact information with In-Cheol, offering to help.
“But two weeks later, I followed up to check. No one was doing anything to help,” says Casey Lartigue. “So I decided to get more deeply involved to try to get things started.”
At his Seoul office, he can not drive out of his mind the image of In-cheol Hwang, again alone in the street, shouting his distress to a world ignoring him. The American makes him a suggestion: In-cheol should join TNKR as a student, then the organization would try to build a team around him.
“It was clear to us that it was his fight first and foremost. He was offered a platform and the opportunity to recruit volunteers.” I said to myself, ”He’s being fighting, usually by himself, for 15 years, I have to do something ”.
A few months later, a demonstration was organized by TNKR at the Freedom Bridge, in the demilitarized zone on the border of the two Koreas. There were about ten volunteers gathered with In-cheol Hwang. “Most people would say we had failed because there were only about 10 of us, but he told us that he felt that he had a million man army with him,” Casey says.
In-cheol’s sister, Chan-wook (Cecelia O’Hare), even traveled from England, where she lives, eager to learn a little more about the mysterious group of good Samaritans who decided to join her brother. She has followed her brother’s campaign for years without getting involved. She was moved by the kindness and seriousness of TNKR’s volunteers.
It has been years since she had seen her brother smile. She told Casey Lartigue that day. “You are the one who makes invisible people visible,” she said.
The event attracted media coverage that In-cheol could not have dreamed of. All thanks to the work done upstream by the small team of volunteers.
Among them, no one is more important than Youngmin Kwon, a South Korean who had just joined TNKR two weeks before the demonstration at the Freedom Bridge. “I had never seen him before. He said he wanted to help,” says Casey.
Originally a law student at Georgetown University in Washington, Youngmin Kwon was on sabbatical for medical reasons in the spring of 2016. A volunteer for Amnesty International in the United States, he has always dreamed of a career in humanitarian action.
He had heard about In-cheol Hwang and come to TNKR to help out. Six months after meeting Mr. Hwang, the student still has not returned to study in the United States. He found in his native land the cause of his life.
Youngmin Kwon now devotes his weeks to organizing gatherings, soliciting international organizations, and translating Korean into English for In-cheol. The fate of Won Hwang and the passengers of the YS-11 consumes him.
If you ask Youngmin for news about himself, he will give you Mr. Hwang’s news. Talk to him about what you can do with your life, he will explain how you could help Mr. Hwang with a very little effort, such as by translating Hwang’s petition into French and by sharing it on Facebook.
“Youngmin has become his eyes, his ears, and his mouth,” says Casey Lartigue.
VII. WIND TURNS
“The silence of society and the government did not change immediately after meeting Casey,” In-cheol Hwang admits. TNKR did not arrive with a quick fix. He was aware of it.
But during the two hours spent telling his story, the man was no longer the shadow of himself he was a few years ago. He not only smiles, he even laughs.
“I feel that I finally have the power to raise my voice. With that came hope. For someone who has suffered as much as I have, the smallest glimmer of hope is an immense source of power. There is now a light that helps me to move forward. I still do not know how long the road will be, but I feel I can overcome one obstacle at a time. “
In 2016, in the wake of the Freedom Bridge rally, a man whom In-cheol Hwang refers to by his codename “Superman” contacted him. “Superman”, according to In-cheol, is a South Korean with important connections in North Korea. Through his contacts, he was able to trace Won Hwang. He is still alive at age 80, living in a village near Pyongyang under constant surveillance.
Suddenly, his father’s release is no longer an unreachable dream for In-cheol Hwang. “I am convinced today that it is not something of the past. This is a humanitarian cause that requires a formal request to the North Korean regime. “
“Bring My Father Home”, his online petition, has been translated into seven languages, and his story has begun to make waves internationally. From England, Chan-wook Hwang (Cecilia O’Hare), has finally decided join the fight to see her father again. The Sun and The Daily Mail published articles about her in December, 2017.
The latest annual report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) devoted a full page to the story of Won Hwang and his son’s struggle. Youngmin Kwon talks about these few paragraphs of a document of more than 200 pages with stars in their eyes.
“For someone who has suffered as much as me, the smallest glimmer of hope is an immense source of power. There is now a light that helps me to move forward.” In-cheol Hwang.
On 19 December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the human rights violations committed in North Korea for a 13th consecutive year. For the first time, however, the resolution called for the North Korean regime to confirm the status, whether dead or alive, of family members separated between the two Koreas.
Slowly, the winds of change seem to be blowing.
“The South Korean government has so far refused to do anything I have asked them to do to help repatriate my father. That is why I am appealing to the conscience of the 21st century.” says In-cheol.
“People see this case in a very complex way, but for me, it has become very simple since I met Casey. As time passes, things become clearer. South Koreans are changing too. By placing one piece of the puzzle after another, I feel certain that we will succeed and I will see my father again. I believe that people’s conscience will ultimately allow justice to triumph.”
This is what has happened to In-cheol Hwang; his renewed faith in the world around him. 15 years of loneliness and indifference have ended, all because a handful of volunteers have decided to help him. The mere fact that some people are as outraged as he is about his father’s plight has allowed In-cheol to reconcile with his fellow human beings.
Casey Lartigue can not guarantee that the Hwangs will one day be reunited. Who knows if North Korea will ever fold? Who knows if “Superman” was not wrong and that Won Hwang is not already dead?
But whether his father’s life ends on South Korean or North Korean soil, Casey, Youngmin, and TNKR will have at least saved a life.
The life of a son. The life of In-cheol Hwang.