JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA – Kim Young-nam was a teenager living on the coast of South Korea when he disappeared in 1978, only to turn up in North Korea. There, he met and married Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school a year earlier.
They lived together and had a daughter. Yokota later committed suicide, North Korean officials have said, although Japan has not accepted that account of her fate. Kim was last heard of living in North Korea.
The contrast in how they are remembered in their home countries is stark.
More than 35 years after she was kidnapped, Yokota has become a symbol of Japan’s all-out effort to bring back at least a dozen of its citizens believed to be held by the North.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reopened dialogue with isolated North Korea and has offered to ease sanctions in return for answers on the abductees, which he has made into a signature issue of his term in office. The two sides held talks on Tuesday in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Kim, who is one of more than 500 South Korean civilians thought to have been abducted and held in the North, is all but forgotten.
“Prime Minister Abe . . . obviously pushed for much more, and it begs the question: What is our government doing for those 500 people?” his sister, Kim Young-ja, 56, said in an interview on Wednesday.
“It is so hard for us. There is nothing we can do, the victims, nothing,” she said through tears at a tea house she runs in Jeonju, a city in southwestern South Korea.
Yokota is one of 13 Japanese citizens that North Korea said in 2002 that its agents kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, apparently in a bid to obtain teaching resources for its spy training programs.
Five of them returned to Japan, but Pyongyang has said that the eight others, including Yokota, are dead.
Japan has identified 17 citizens it says were abducted. It also wants firm proof of the fate of the eight others who are said to have died, and information on other missing persons who may also have been kidnapped.
While Abe has made the plight of the Japanese taken by North Korea a personal crusade, the South Korean government has been reluctant to push Pyongyang on the topic.
Many of the South Korean abductees were part of programs to help train spies on culture and dialect, according to North Korean defectors who have spoken of taking part in them.
Critics say the South Korean government had stigmatized the families of the abductees, painting them as sympathizers of the North.
The stigma eased under the Sunshine Policy of engagement initiated by then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, leading to a groundswell of support for those who were missing as South Korea engaged in what was seen as “quiet diplomacy” on humanitarian issues.
however, after the North torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in 2010 and later that year shelled an island, the government in Seoul slammed the door on all talks with Pyongyang and the abductee issue faded.
Many of the families of the missing are poor or working-class people in rural areas with little means to plead their case, some of the families have said.
“In Japan, the government comes looking for you when you’re an abductee’s family,” said Choi Sung-yong, who heads the Abductees’ Family Union, based in Seoul.
“We don’t expect our government to come to us, but over here, it’s practically impossible for a victim’s family to see a government official,” he said, referring to the stigma attached to those who were abducted.
There is no immediate plan to approach North Korea on the abductions issue in the wake of the renewed talks between the North and Japan, said an official at the Unification Ministry, which handles ties with Pyongyang.
“This government will continue to try to bring back the abductees on humanitarian grounds,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “We will talk to North Korea whenever there is a chance to resolve the abduction issue.”
The two Koreas are technically still at war more than six decades after a truce suspended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim Young-nam, who would be 52 years old now, went missing at the age of 16 from an island beach on South Korea’s west coast where he was on holiday with eight friends.
The circumstances of his disappearance have not been clearly established and he was assumed to have drowned. The family reported him as likely deceased.
It came as a shock when two South Korean intelligence agents approached his sister in the early 1990s with news that he was alive and living in North Korea.
“These two men called over to me. We had forgotten the name Kim Young-nam. We thought he was dead,” Kim Young-ja said.
“We were scared. We had never thought for a minute he would be alive in North Korea,” she recalled.
In 2006, Kim was reunited for three days with his mother and sister during a reunion at the Mount Kumgang resort just north of the Koreas’ militarized border.
There, he told his relatives that he had married Yokota in 1986 and that she had died at a hospital in 1994 after repeated suicide attempts, suffering from depression and schizophrenia, discrediting any suggestion that she was alive.
He said the couple had had a daughter, and that after Yokota’s death he had married a North Korean woman.
Kim said at the time that he had drifted to the North inadvertently after falling asleep in a row boat and was rescued, a claim that is widely rejected in the South as a story he is forced to tell. It is also implausible, given the distance of more than 200 km.
In March, Yokota’s parents met the North Korean woman born to their daughter and Kim, spending several days with the 28-year-old granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.
But hope is fading that Young-ja and her brother will be reunited again.
Asked what he did for a living, Kim said, “unification business,” according to Young-ja.
“Would you then be able to come to the South?” she said, pleading with him in the moments before they parted.
“I think that would be difficult,” he replied.