Lee Mi-il (’71, Clothing and Textiles) slipped from her nanny’s hold onto the front door terrace stone when she was two years old. The fall injured her spine, leaving her with a warped back and a height of 135 centimeters. Lee would frequently faint, and whenever Lee was unconscious, her mother held her in her arms and repeated those words. Lee’s father was abducted to the North on Sept. 4 in 1950.
According to Lee, North Korea needed talented people along with the southern land to complete the building of its communist nation. After provoking war, the North systematically took away selected southern civilians. Among the kidnapped South Koreans, a considerable number of people contributed to the founding people of the Republic of Korea.
“My mother’s devoted care kept me alive. I sometimes think that it may have been God’s plan—to have me working on the issue of human rights of wartime abductees,” Lee said.
More than half a century has passed since the Korean War, and now Lee is the president of the Korean War Abductees Family Union. She is working to raise awareness and bring back those who were kidnapped to North Korea during the Korean War.
Lee and other families of abductees have not lost hope of bringing those kidnapped back.
In 2000, Lee first stepped into the issue of wartime abductees in search of her father. She felt the world crashing down when the president only mentioned the 480 abductees who were taken after the war, not during the first intra-Korean summit meeting. The country kept silent.
“The families of abductees wanted to hear anything—whether those taken to the North were alive—or something,” Lee said.
“Thankfully, the government had arranged reunions of families separated by war. I signed up as my mother’s life-long wish was to meet my father again, but the response was disappointing. After the summit meeting, groups in search of postwar abductees started to emerge, but none for wartime abductees.”
Thus, Lee had to start from zero. The government claimed that there was no information as it was impossible to classify whether people were abducted or defected to the North.
“Even the media, academia, and political world only recognized the 480 postwar abductees,” said Lee. “Wartime abductees are not missing people or defectors; they are also abductees who were kidnapped. Wartime abductees were taken away in front of our eyes, and yet we still do not know if they are dead or alive. The existence of wartime abductees was in danger of being forgotten.”
The first light of hope came in 2002. Lee found a government document from 1952 listing 82,959 South Koreans as kidnapped.
“Since then, we tried to find out more about the people listed. We were only able to receive responses from 337 people,” Lee sighed.
“None were able to identify my father. After our first finding, we discovered more bibliographic data, but the government denied credibility of the documents.”
Then in March of 2010, a compensation law for the abducted victims of Korean War passed the National Assembly. Sixty years after the damage, a special law has been established.
“I believe it is a splendid historical achievement in setting Korea’s modern history right. I experienced how history speaks through records,” Lee said.
For Lee, a decade worth of work is finally shining through. Last year, Lee was honored with the 2011 human rights award from KNA Human Rights Forum. An even greater accomplishment was the resolution on wartime abductees unanimously passing the House of Representatives in America on Dec. 13, 2010.
Now that Korea has acknowledged wartime abductees and America has passed the resolution, the task left for Lee is to take the work to an international level. Lee will continue on with this rough journey until she is clear as to whether the abductees are alive or not, and if not, she will try to bring their bodies back to waiting families.
“I hope to see the government actively take part in comforting the pain of waiting families. It is time for us to work for wartime abductees and their families; bring them back to where they belong,” Lee said.