Forgotten Abductees

50 Years in North Korea

1969 Korean Air Lines Hijacking

Overview

On December 11th 1969, the Korean Airlines YS-11 plane from Gangneung Airbase bound for Gimpo International Airport was hijacked and changed its direction to North Korea within 10 mins of taking off. The aircraft was carrying 46 passengers, 4 crew members and the North Korean sleeper agent Cho Chang-Hee. The hijacker flew the airplane to Sondok Airfield which lies near the city of Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, more than 260 km away from plane’s original destination. It is unclear what happened to the hijacker, although, there are reports that there was a car waiting for him at the airport where the plane landed. (Chey, 2018: Online). After two months, on the 14 February 1970, 39 of the 50 abductees were returned to South Korea across the Freedom Bridge near Panmunjeom. However, 7 of the passengers, all 4 crew members and the aircraft itself remain missing (Chey, 2018: Online).

Background

Abductions: Since the beginning of the Korean War on June 25th 1950, approximately 200,000  civilians and soldiers have been abducted by the DPRK’s regime (COI, 2014: Paragraph 1011). In 1946, Kim Il-sung stated that, “Not only do we need to search out all of Northern Chosun’s intelligentsia in order to solve the issue of a shortage of intelligentsia, but we also have to bring Southern Chosun’s intelligentsia [to the North]” (Go, 2018: Online).  Following this time, many citizens were abducted during the Korean War, however, the exact number of missing persons remains unknown (Han et al., 2018: 542). The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI)  (2014, paragraph 1143) states that approximately 80,000 civilians were abducted by DPRK forces during the Korean War with tens of thousands being kept when they should have been released.

Prisoners of War: Following the ceasefire, a prisoners of war (POW) exchange took place between the North and South in the Operation Big Switch from Operation Big Switch, August 5–December 23, 1953 (Grey, 2019: Online). According to the U.N. Command, 82,000 members of the Korean Armed Forces were estimated to be missing in the DPRK, however, only 8,343 soldiers were returned to the South during this exchange (Park et al., 2010: 480). Of these, 13,836 were assumed to have been killed in action while the status of 19,409 soldiers was unconfirmed and they were assumed as missing in action (Park et al., 2010: 481). Many of these soldiers were forced to work in coal miles, factories and farm villages to help rebuild the DPRK after the Korean War (Han et al., 2018: 563). Approximately 80 prisoners of war have managed to defect back to South Korea but the others are still detained. The remains of only 6 soldiers have been handed back to South Korea (Han et al., 2018: 562).

After the Korean War: According to the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea (Han et al., 2018:545) there have been at least 143 abductions and at least 3,835 people have been abducted since the end of the Korean War. 3,310 of these people were returned after being held for 6 months to a year. After 2000, 9 more defected back but 516 remain missing (ibid: 545). 95% of the 516 still missing were taken between 1955-1977 and  133 of them were taken in 1968 alone. Only 3 of the 516 still detained were taken after 1995 (ibid, 546).

Overseas Abductions of Foreign Nationals: In 1959, more than 93,000 persons were coerced by false promises to move to the DPRK from Japan. However, a few years after they had moved, they were forced to cut off contact with their families in Japan (COI, 2014: Paragraph 1143). According to the COI’s (2014: Paragraph 1143) findings, many of these people ended up in political prison camps or other places of detention in the DPRK where they were subjected to other crimes against humanity.

Over a hundred citizens of Japan, South Korea and other states were victims of planned abductions by special operations and intelligence agents of DPRK. Around 25 non-South Korean abductions were from Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia (Burton 2018: Online) who were brought to DPRK to become wives to other foreigners already living in the DPRK.

Although the DPRK has officially admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese nationals, yet it is estimated that in total, 17 were kidnapped (Williams and Mobrand, 2010: 509). Other sources estimate that there are as many as 450 suspected cases of Japanese abductions by North Koreans, and only five returning in 2002 (Evans, 2015: Online). After that the only sign of life of the Japanese abductees was the North Korean regime’s declaration of the death of eight of them. To support these claims North Korea has handed over several things to the Japanese officials including the remains of the dead Japanese abductees. However, the Japanese government evaluated the remains and deemed them unreliable as they could not be identified (US Government, 2006: 25).

Hijacking of the 1969 Korean Air Lines YS-11

The abduction this report will focus on is the case of the 1969 hijacked Korean Airlines flight. On December 11th 1969, the Korean Airlines YS-11 plane from Gangneung Airbase bound for Gimpo International Airport was hijacked and changed its direction to North Korea within 10 mins of taking off. The aircraft was carrying 46 passengers, 4 crew members and the North Korean sleeper agent Cho Chang-Hee. The hijacker flew the airplane to Sondok Airfield which lies near the city of Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, more than 260 km away from plane’s original destination. It is unclear what happened to the hijacker, although, there are reports that there was a car waiting for him at the airport where the plane landed. (Chey, 2018: Online).

After two months, on the 14 February 1970, 39 of the 50 abductees were returned to South Korea across the Freedom Bridge near Panmunjeom. However, 7 of the passengers, all 4 crew members and the aircraft itself remain missing (Chey, 2018: Online). The South Korean president Park Chung-Hee sent a letter regarding the missing 11 passengers of the flights to the UN Secretary General U Thant on March 9, 1970. He responded admitting to have no power to pressure North Korea. Instead, they should seek support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (Daley, 1970: Online).

To this day, North Korea claims that the remaining 11 South Koreans have chosen to stay in North Korea out of their own free will. South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung’s sunshine policy towards North Korea resulted in family reunions taking place in 2001.  One of the randomly chosen participants was Seong Gyeong-Hui, who was one of the flight attendants on the flight YS-11 (Ryall, 2013: Online). When she met her mother in 2001, she revealed that the other crew members were still alive and even living in close proximity to her near Pyongyang. While she had not seen the other abductees since their first arrival in North Korea, she mentioned she heard they were faring well (ibid).

This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the Korean Airline YS-11 hijacking. See below the list of missing persons.

Not yet returned (age at time of abduction):

  1. Yu Byeong-Ha (유병하, 38) of Seoul, captain

  2. Choe Seok-Man (최석만, 37) of Seoul, first officer

  3. Jeong Gyeong-Suk (정경숙, 24) of Seoul, flight attendant

  4. Seong Gyeong-Hui (성경희, 23) of Seoul, flight attendant

  5. Yi Dong-Gi (이동기, 49) of Miryang, manager of a printing company

  6. Hwang Won (황원, 32) of Gangneung, programme director at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)

  7. Gim Bong-Ju (김봉주, 27) of Gangneung, cameraman at MBC

  8. Chae Heon-Deok (채헌덕, 37) of Gangneung, doctor

  9. Im Cheol-Su (임철수, 49) of Yanggu, office worker

  10. Jang Ki-Yeong (장기영, 40) of Uijeongbu, food industry businessman

  11. Choe Jeong-Ung (최정웅, 28) of Wonju, Hankook Slate Company employee

In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry(COI) released a report on the Human Rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Amongst their investigations of human rights violations of DPRK citizens, they also reviewed the violations of international persons being held in the DPRK to conclude whether they would amount to crimes against humanity. After the investigation, the Commision concluded that the DPRK have and are continuing to commit crimes against humanity against abducted international persons (COI, 2014: Paragraph 1138). The report specifically mention the 11 missing from the KAL YS-11 flight.

The 11 that remain missing are considered as involuntarily disappeared. Enforced or involuntary disappearances are viewed as a crime against humanity. Although it is often difficult to determine the exact circumstances of the disappearances and whether they were involuntary, their right to leave North Korea as well as to move freely within the country remains undisputed, infringing on their right to freedom of movement (Han et al 2018, 553). Since 2014, there have been consecutive resolutions by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in which the UN has confronted the DPRK regarding their abductions and enforced disappearances, repetitively urging the North Korean regime to let the abductees return home (ibid).

The definition of enforced disappearance as outlined by International Criminal Law, and included in the Commission’s report (2014: Paragraph 1142), has three components:

  1. The arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of, a state or a political organisation.

  2. Followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, and

  3. The intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID)

The Working Group of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) was established in 1980 by resolution 20 (XXXVI) of the Commision of Human Rights in order to help families of disappeared persons determine the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared relatives. As the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force, the mandate of the WGEID was extended by the Council. The Working Group now also helps and monitors signatories of this treaty to ensure they are complying with their obligations (A/HRC/39/46:1)

WGEID and North Korea

The WGEID placed a request to the DPRK to release information on three abductees, including Mr Hwang Won, in 2011 (Daily NK, 2016: Online). In 2016, the UN then submitted a request to Pyongyang for information regarding 14 South Koreans that North Korean operatives had allegedly abducted. Amongst the abductees on the list compiled by the Working Group was a former crew member of the hijacked Korean Air Lines YS-11 (ibid). As these cases have not been solved, accordingly with WGEID policy, these cases will remain open until the fate and whereabouts of the abductees is known. According to the WGEID report, at the beginning of the period under review (in this case 2017-2018), the number of outstanding cases was 167. During the period under review, another 66 standard cases were added and 1 urgent case was transmitted to the DPRK. The total number of outstanding cases by the end of the period were 233 (A/HRC/36/49).

 
North Korea’s Response

The WGEID reports from over the years show that North Korea continuously has failed to reply with any information about the disappeared people. In response to the 2011 request, DPRK refused to disclose information and denied that these people are in the DPRK (NK Daily). The WGEID (A/HRC/36/49: Paragraph 92 ) has also previously asked to be invited to the DPRK on the 22nd of May, 2015 but there was no response. The WGEID followed up with 2 reminders, one of the 18th of November 2016 and then again on the 19th of January 2018 but the DPRK still has not responded.

 

Aviation Security: International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is a specialized UN agency which is linked to  the latter through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) created in 1944. They are tasked with the management of the administration as well as the governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

ICAO’s first article defines the question of jurisdiction of airspace: “Every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the air space of their territory” (November, 1972: 644). Thus, in case of a hijacking, the jurisdiction falls towards the country in which either the plane finally lands or in which the hijacking took place. (November, 1972: 645). Furthermore, ICAO works with International Civil Aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) to further help create and implement a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector (ICAO, 2019 I: Online). The Chicago Convention itself now has 192 members, with the DPRK joining in 1977 (ICAO, 2017: Online).

Taking into account the working methods and goals of ICAO, it is essential to relate ICAO’s responsibilities to the hijacked Korean Air Lines plane YS-11. In the occurrence of a hijacking, the landing state has jurisdiction to arrest, and prosecute or extradite the offender. However, in regards to the abducted KAL YS-11 plane, the accused was allegedly not acting on his own but under the orders of the DPRK. Although a case of hijacking can be further investigated, ICAO does not do this. Instead, the country involved with the incident is able to carry out an investigation. In South Korea, this responsibility lies with the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Branch, a part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (ICAO, 2019 V: Online), which has yet to be involved in the process of investigating the disappeared plane.

Conclusion

The 11th of December 2019 marks 50 years since the plane was hijacked en route to Seoul. 11 of those that were on the plane remain missing and the DPRK has continuously denied that they are being kept against their will but refuse to provide any evidence to support these statements. These people and the others that remain missing are subjected to crimes against humanity and deserve the collective efforts of the international community and the South Korean government to be rescued.

In accordance with the UDHR, the DPRK infringes on the right to freedom of movement of all abductees by detaining them in North Korea. By enforcedly disappearing those abducted and withholding information about them, they COI finds them in violation of crimes against humanity. Although ICAO does not primarily investigate hijackings and most often delegates this to national institutions, they should enforce their own resolutions when they are not followed by member states in order to discourage the DPRK from violating them.

Despite these crimes, specifically the crimes against humanity, taking place in the distant past, PSCORE recognises that these are continuing crimes as the fate and whereabouts of all abductees has not been fully disclosed.