From Hwang Solo to Team Hwang
On December 11, 1969, a North Korean agent hijacked domestic flight Korean Air NAMC YS-11 from Gangwon to Gimpo just 10 minutes after take-off at 12:25 pm. All 50 people on board (46 passengers and 4 crew members) were abducted by North Korea.
The North Korean government eventually released 39 people, but held the other 11. One of those kidnapped is Hwang Won, then a producer with MBC. For about 15 years, his son, Hwang In-Cheol, has been asking the North Korean regime to return his father, doing a balancing act of raising awareness and pressure, without unnecessarily provoking the regime, and keeping it a non-political purely humanitarian effort.
It is not often that we get to collaborate with people who are connected to historical events, but on March 20 of this year, I met In-Cheol at the International Volunteers Workshop. An organization I founded with my South Korean partner, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), is an NGO focusing on North Korean refugees, but we also allow South Koreans in as learners if they help North Korean refugees or can demonstrate a special relationship with North Korea. We invited In-Cheol to join TNKR as a student studying with volunteer English tutors so he can prepare to share his message in English and to join our special project addressing North Korean related issues so he could build a team of volunteers to help him with his cause.
For 15 years, In-Cheol has been holding one-man demonstrations, occasionally working with international and domestic NGOs and governments in his attempt to have his father returned from North Korea. He hit a low point when he lost money, and has had family members try to convince him to give up.
He has refused to let the father he barely knew be forgotten by the world. On June 17, he led a rally at Imjingak’s Freedom Bridge (near the DMZ) along with 15 volunteers from TNKR and family members.
Based on pure numbers, the rally would be considered a failure, with only 15 of us participating. To In-Cheol, after doing this on his own for 15 years, it looked like an army a million-strong had joined him. So many people talk about saving the world, but they can’t even help one individual. Many don’t realize that their presence at events and small donations can help a cause and lift the spirits of those involved.
The most unlikely attendee at the rally: Cecilia. She was just a few months old and her brother In-Cheol was two years old when their father was taken from them by North Korea. She says that she had given up, trying for years to convince her brother and mother to move on with their lives. She now lives in the UK, she returned to South Korea last week to see their ailing mother, to observe the rally, and to see if she could really trust the people who have joined her brother’s cause.
On April 13, when we started collaborating with her brother, I posted a photo on Facebook. She was shocked: Her brother had a big grin on his face. She informed me a few days ago that she had not seen him smile in years, that she had hated seeing photos from his one-man demonstrations. Over the last few months, she has seen volunteers from Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, France, the USA and even North Korea join him, in happy group photos as we planned the rally and other activities.
At the June 17 rally, when I met Cecilia for the first time, she told me that it felt like a dream. I pinched one of our interns, then said, “Nope, this is not a dream.” She thanked us for giving a voice to him. She admits that she had tried to hide from the kidnapping. With a team of international volunteers, she said, “I feel like I have hands, arms, legs, a voice. The little weak girl could stand up.”
The news media occasionally stumbles upon their story, driving by to take snapshots, then driving on to the next story and rarely looking back. The family has been in pain for 47 years, marking anniversaries and living successes and failures without Hwang Won.
The biggest compliment Cecilia gave to me as we talked a few days after the rally: “You are the person who makes invisible people visible. You listen to people, find out what they need, and try to find people who can help them so their voices can be heard. I finally feel that I have the power for my voice to be heard.”
We hope we can continue to make their voices heard, that others will sign the online petition and join us this December to mark the 47th anniversary of KAL NAMC YS-11 being hijacked on December 11, 1969.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.
Texte en anglais traduit par Elodie Thiriez