By Kim Young-jin
For Oh Kil-nam, the South Korean economist who moved to North Korea 26 years ago, it was not a scene to remember: two sick daughters, a wailing wife and North Korean agents waiting outside to whisk him away.
Yet for almost two decades since arriving back in the South, he has replayed the memory on a continuous, guilt-ridden loop while living in relative obscurity.
It was the last time Oh would see his loved ones; he escaped after the authorities took him to Germany wanting him to lure South Korean students to the communist regime.
“I told my wife I must come back and that I didn’t have the courage to leave them,” the 69-year-old recalled in an interview.
“She hit my face and we cried together. She said ‘If you fulfill this task what would happen to those people? You can’t have that on your conscience.’”
Now riding a groundswell of support from activists, Oh is issuing a fresh call to the international community to help him reunite with his family, who, if alive, are believed to be at the North’s notorious Yodok prison camp.
It has been a long, painful trip for Oh, now retired in Seoul from his job at a state-run think tank.
The critical moment ― and the source of his guilt ― came in 1985, when the talented, left-leaning academic wrapped up his doctoral studies in Germany while living there with his wife, Shin Sook-ja, and his two spirited, violin-loving daughters.
Hesitant to return to the South due to his leftist activities, Oh was approached by North Korean agents who told him that his wife could receive free medical attention for her tuberculosis in the North. He would be given a government job.
Over the tearful objections of Shin, who was wary of the North’s system, Oh packed up the family and headed for Pyongyang.
“Unfortunately, I only realized she was right when I entered North Korea,” he said.
Instead of a luxurious car and accommodation, the family was taken deep into the mountains for three months of “Sealed Education for Brainwashing.” The scholar was made to work at a radio station broadcasting propaganda to the South. All promises went unfulfilled.
Agents eventually dispatched him to Germany to recruit fellow Southerners, telling him his family could not go along.
This time he decided to listen to his wife, turning himself over to European authorities.
Oh pleaded to the United Nations and international human rights agencies and eventually Seoul for help. In the early 1990’s, he penned the book, “Please Return My Wife and Daughters, Kim Il-sung” to which the regime did not respond.
Life in the South has been decent but hard. “It is very lonely without my family. I’m always thinking of my daughters. I want to hear them play the violin,” he said.
‘Persuade the powers’
Oh’s story has burst into the spotlight after activists in his wife’s hometown in South Gyeongsang Province spearheaded awareness-raising activities, garnering 30,000 supporters and igniting similar activities elsewhere.
Those close to Oh, who resides in Seoul, say the campaign has lifted his spirits after falling into a secluded existence that included habitual drinking.
“Their actions are powerful,” he said, “and useful.”
Last week, they took out full-page ads in major local dailies to call on visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to address the situation.
Some speculate that Oh’s former ties to the leftist movement and the fact he stranded his family have kept the story, for the most part, swept under the rug.
But growing civic efforts to expose the North’s gulag system may have made the time ripe for the story to be heard.
Activists estimate Pyongyang holds some 200,000 people in a sprawling political prison system as part of its iron-fisted rule.
In 1991, the North sent Oh photographs through a North Korea sympathizer, of his family huddled in the snow at Yodok. Rights groups say the camp is rife with executions, starvation, rape and torture.
The conduit, a Korean-German composer named Yoon Yi-sang, admonished Oh for being a U.S. spy and advised him to go back to the North lest his family die.
No word on their condition has been heard since.
Though such memories continue to haunt him, the fresh attention seems to have energized Oh.
Asked what the international community can do, he said, “Protest and appeal more vehemently to various international bodies. Persuade the powers.” He added that Seoul could raise the humanitarian issue during bilateral meetings with Pyongyang.
On Saturday, at an event at Seoul Plaza organized by the Youth Association for the Enhancement of North Korean Human Rights, hundreds are expected to be on hand when the group declares that the family should be released.
As for the North Korean regime, Oh’s message remains clear: “These are helpless females. Return my wife and two daughters to me.”