How South Korea Sacrificed Its Abducted Citizens

In 1979, a mob of wild-eyed whooping loonies seized 52 Americans and held them as hostages for 444 days. The most testosterone-deficient U.S. president in living memory made securing their freedom his all-consuming priority in office, as the news media led with the story every night for over a year. He froze Iranian assets and even launched a disastrous military mission to free them. His failure to do so destroyed his presidency.

In September 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted that his government’s spies had kidnapped Megumi Yokota and 12 other Japanese citizens to serve as instructors for North Korean spies. The admission — which many saw as incomplete — sparked widespread Japanese outrage and has brought Japan to the brink of imposing economic sanctions. Demands for the return of the hostages and their remains were ferocious. An award-winning film about Megumi Yokota’s abduction is making headlines in Japan today.

A few of the abductees actually returned home alive. The North Koreans claimed, dubiously, that the others had died, and that most of their bodies had washed away in floods. Under intense Japanese pressure, the North Koreans finally returned two sets of cremated remains, including one set it claimed were those of Yokota. Perhaps the North Koreans did not believe that enough bone fragments would remain for DNA tests, but they did, and the bones’ DNA did not match those of the abductees. (So whose remains were they, one wonders?)

The sum of these events has been a complete shift in Japanese policy toward North Korea.

Now, pause for a study of contrasts. Trust me — this is all leading somewhere.


The North also holds South Korean hostages. Unlike the Japanese abductees, who may number in the dozens, the South Korean abductees number in the hundreds (or, to be precise, 486). They include prisoners of war held in violation of the Korean War armistice, children, and fishermen. Some were passengers on a plane that was hijacked to Pyongyang in 1969.

In contrast to the Japanese reaction, South Korea has neither imposed, threatened, or discussed sanctions to secure the release of its citizens. There is no public outrage on their behalf. And perhaps not coincidentally, South Korea has accomplished much less on behalf of its citizens. Some have been allowed brief, tightly-supervised visits with their family members, an event that was marred by North Korean fury that South Korean reporters dared to call the South Korean abductees, “abductees.” Worse, South Korean officials tried to pressure the reporters to choose false words to soothe the feelings of the kidnappers.

Otherwise, the only South Korean abductees to have returned to the arms of their loved ones are those who have escaped. For those whose efforts did not quite succeed, there was little assistance from their government.

Fast-forward to today. We appear to be on the verge of answering a nagging question.

After DNA testing, Tokyo has concluded that Kim Chol-jun, identified by North Korea as the husband of Japanese abductee Megumi Yokota, who according to the North married Mr. Kim in 1986 but committed suicide in 1994, is not a North Korean as Pyongyang has claimed but an abducted South Korean, several sources in Japan said yesterday.

“After conducting DNA tests on family members of five abducted South Koreans, one matched the DNA of the daughter of Mr. Kim,” said a source yesterday. Tokyo officials obtained DNA samples from Kim Hye-gyong, the daughter of Mr. Kim, in 2002 during an interview in Pyongyang. Starting in February, Tokyo collected DNA samples of the family members here in order to test its suspicion.

Let me close this post with just two questions:

1. What does anyone suppose the South Koreans will do about this?

2. What would have happened if the remains had turned out to be those of another, unacknowledged, Japanese abductee?

If you can answer those questions accurately, you can also accurately estimate how much the South Korean government values to lives and freedom of its citizens.


  1. SK won’t do anything. if they won’t raise their voice when a Korean POW is repatriated after escaping into China, then they aren’t going to react to anything.

    Japan? Had he been japanese i think the sanctions would finally go through or the ruling party would risk a sound thumping in the next polls/election.

    just calling it as i see it.


  2. Yes. If you stop to think about it for a second or two, it is unavoidable to see this as a real national shame for South Korea.

    With all the goodwill flowing up to the North, the only reason the North would have not to return the abductees is the same one that makes them imprison, torture and/or kill North Koreans caught fleeing to China or returning over the border — simply because they don’t want information about the North getting out.

    With South Korea, the North could be fairly sure it would not receive the kind of backlash it did with Japanese society when it admitted the abductions.

    It could be pretty sure the South Korean government (and people) would hail the repatriations as a stunning positive development in the growing Sunshine between the two nations.

    In short, it would take little effort for the North to send the people home.

    That makes the fact South Korea won’t apply any pressure on the issue much worse…..


  3. Carter should get credit for launching “Desert One”. The failure was the military’s. Suffice it to say that they learned from their failure, which is why we now have JSOC. I have it on reliable authority that Carter authorized a follow-up raid that was never launched. Whatever his faults, and he is not my favorite president, lack of testies wasn’t one of them. Johnson had his justification to carpet-bomb Pyongyang after the Pueblo Incident, and likewise failed to take it for some very good reasons. That hardly renders him a eunich.


  4. I don’t know a whole lot about the time period —- but the very fact Carter’s big move was lonely raid says a lot.

    Maybe this will be one of the benefits of going to Heaven — maybe we can watch authentic replays of “what could have been” if different things had been tried.

    If he had attacked Iran — say like a Libya by Reagan — the hostages would have been killed when in the end in the real time line they were not.

    I’d like to know what the American people would have thought if Carter had done a Libya and some or all were killed?

    My gut tells me they would have repected Carter more than they did the way history actually unfolded…..


  5. Mark Bowden, author of “Blackhawk Down”, has a new book on the Iranian Hostage Crisis coming out later this month. In recent interviews, he points to the events of 26 years ago–the failure of Carter to achieve an outcome politically, militarily and strategically favorable to the US–as the true Pearl Harbor of Islamic terrorism’s war on the US. In other words, the Iranian disaster was the first in a chain of failures that led directly to the September 11th attacks. Yes, other US Presidents were somewhat culpable, including Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton. But it was Carter who set the tone and Islamic Terrorism’s wheels in motion against the US.


  6. That’s a tough sell for me given Reagan’s limited actions against Libya and Iran and helping work Iran-Iraq against each other as well as Afghanistan.

    I can entertain an arguement that says if the US had dealt with the rise of fundamental Islam in the oil producing heart of the world (thus terribly strategically valuable) as we did with the rise of communist dictatorship pushing into Europe (and Asia – and everywhere), 9/11 would have been averted and the world would be in better shape today — and the key early hinge was Carter’s response to problems in Iran….

    …..but those after him didn’t recognize a serious regional (and thus global) threat or respond to it as such.

    And Carter’s peace initiative between Israel and Egypt held out a real hope that the Iran spread type leadership of that part of the world – so crucial to the world – would be countered by other means.

    I think Carter was one of the world presidents in US history, and I gave him good marks as an ex-President until the first Gulf War, but I can’t lay too much blame for 9/11 or the overall situation that developed in the Middle East. He is one in a line of them that did not put enough effort into the problems that were clearly rising there.


  7. That should be “one of the worst”

    I also just thought about what we could do with Reagan’s limited strikes of the 1980s and Clinton’s of the 1990s?????


    Reagan’s did put Libya in a box. I don’t know if it really did anything much when he hit Iran.

    On the other hand, I think we can say Clinton’s strikes against Afghanistan and The Sudan most likely strengthen/encouraged a similar enemy.


  8. Count me as a Reagan fan, but the deployment of Marines in Lebanon was a failure that led to 200+ deaths and a quick exit. President Reagan then had a choice to attack the Hezbollah camps (source of the suicide truck bombers), but chose to listen to Sec. of State Schultz. Reagan gets points for attacking Libya and Iran during various confrontation. The Lebanon exit, though, sent the wrong message to the terrorists.

    For you Carter fans, read Bowden’s book except in this month’s Atlantic magazine (available online for free). You will lose all respect for President Carter, who wanted the Delta Force to use tear gas and other “non-lethal” weapons against the “students” holding the hostages. It’s also plainly obvious that Operation Eagle’s Claw (the rescue attempt) was an overly complicated operation with only a tiny chance of success. There’s no doubt that Carter’s meddling (top priority: minimize civilian casualties) had much to do with its preposterous design.

    Read it here: