Aug.16, 2011 - Interview with Lee Mi-il
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2014-01-14 13:23:47  |  Hit 2240

Chosun Daily
Aug. 16, 2011

KWAFU President Lee Mi-il is the unsung hero in making the government recognize the Korean War abductees
The number of civilians taken to the North is around 80,000
Global community needs to put pressure on North Korea by calling out its crimes

“We are all proud of the Republic of Korea for achieving the prosperity and development we enjoy today. And we are proud of the government for making efforts to address the issue of the Korean War abductees although 60 years have passed. We believe that those who were taken to the North because of their support and affection for their nation now feel comforted.”

Lee Mi-il, President of the Korean War Abductees’ Family Union (KWAFU), expressed her gratitude to the government in a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik. The meeting was held on the 2nd to announce that 55 people have been recognized as wartime abductees. She did not accuse or blame the government for recognizing only 55 people as abductees out of 82,959 as the result of a 10-year-long effort.

The interview took place in the editing department of the Chosun Daily on the 12th. KWAFU President Lee Mi-il (61) is 135 cm tall and has a spinal disability. The first question we asked was why she is thankful for the Republic of Korea even though it has not made much effort to bring her abducted father back.

Q. The government hasn’t done much for you. Are you still thankful?

A. When I was little, I was ill and went to church to pray. Since then, I’ve prayed for the prosperity of the Republic of Korea. Because of the prejudice against disabled people, I was not allowed to study in Gyeonggi Girls’ Middle School and Ehwa Girls’ Middle school. On top of that, my father was abducted. But I still had affection for Korea. I don’t know why but I took pity on Korea. I thought that in the government must have a reason for making such decisions. It was out of love for the nation that I was hard on the government when I pushed it to address the issue of the Korean War abductions.

Q. The Korean War came to an end more than half a century ago. Why do you bring up this issue now?

A. The 1945 Independence Day is important, but the establishment of the government in 1948 is even more significant. The Korean War abductions took place as the Republic of Korea was trying to stand on its feet after its establishment, and the abductees are the victims.

A great number of people working for the government in the political, medical and economic fields were taken to the North.

Today, Korea is no longer a weak, underdeveloped nation. If we were not able to address the issue of the Korean War abductees as we were busy making ends meet, now we need to fight for the abductees and their family members. That is what the government needs to do.

Q. Some say that it would be difficult to continue policy towards North Korean when the issue of the North Korean abductions is raised.

A. While people in South Korea live in prosperity and comfort, the 80,000 people detained in North Korea do not enjoy any of this. It doesn’t make sense to not even record the existence of the abductees in history.

At the moment, the government is busy defending itself from North Korea, but it should rather put pressure on North Korea, calling out its crimes, and informing the international community about North Korea’s crime of abducting civilians. (Lee Mi-il took out a full-page advertisement that read, “Please rescue the daughter of Tongyeong.”

This advertisement was published in the paper in an effort to rescue the family of O Gil-nam, detained in North Korea by taking the visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as an opportunity.) If the issue of the Korean War abductions is well known around the globe, do you think the misfortune that the family of O Gil-nam is facing would ever happen?

If everyone knew about the cruel crime of North Korea, the North Korean regime would not dare to abduct fishermen or students. I have no idea what Kim Jung-il is planning to do by holding the family members of O Gil-nam,a woman and children.

Q. It’s surprising that only 55 people were recognized as abductees.

A. Yes. The National Committee on Investigating Abductions by North Korea during the Korean War and Restoring Honor to the Victims did not advertise well. The advertisement to report the abductees was published early this year, but it was not noticeable. Moreover, people who worked in Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated past affairs in South Korea, were selected as investigators, which was quite problematic.

Q. I’ve heard that reports from Seoul were not yet investigated.

A. (With a sigh) According to the Act, which passed the National Assembly last year, reports on the abductees filed in each city and province are supposed to be sent to the Office of the Prime Minister.

However, as Oh Se-hoon, Mayor of Seoul, and the city council, mainly composed of the Democratic Party members, fought over the issue of free school meals. As a result, an ordinance related to the Act did not even pass the Seoul Metropolitan Council. In June, the members of KWAFU visited the Council and made complaints. 140 reports received by Seoul are still in the final investigation stage, and therefore excluded from the list of 55 recognized abductees. Because the Committee will receive reports until 2013, there still is a plenty of time. I hope more people know the contact number (1661-6250) for reporting on the abductees.

Q. What happens when the government recognizes someone as an abductee?

A. In the tomb of patriotic martyrs of North Korea lie three South Korean civilians who were recognized as abductees by the ROK government. The ROK government must ask the North to return their remains. We can also file a suit against the North Korean regime.

KWAFU President Lee Mi-il was dropped on a stone at the door by her nanny and injured her spine when she was only one year old. Tuberculosis permeated into her spine, making her disabled. Her father, Lee Seong-hwan, was abducted by the North Korean Army on September 4, 1950 and never returned. After graduating Ehwa University in 1971, Lee Mi-il married to an artist who graduated Seoul National University, but got divorced at the request of her husband in 1987.

Q. It seem like you have faced so many difficulties in life. How did you start to working on the issue of abductees?

A. Whenever I hear this question, I laugh it off saying, “I’m addicted to abductees.” The most devastating time in my life was when my husband asked me for a divorce. At that time, I held onto my faith as a Christian. Running KWAFU is like my destiny. Now that the Act on Investigating Abductions by North Korea during the Korean War and Restoring Honor to the Victims has passed the National Assembly, I have a new goal to get a resolution on the abductees passed in the US Congress.

Q. How did you become the President of KWAFU?

A. In 1999, my mother was taking heart medicine, and as a side effect she suffered from depression. I felt like she was about to die. My mother’s only wish was to see my father again. At that time, the Kim Dae-jung government hosted a reunion of separated families. We applied, but we were not successful.

After the inter-Korean summit meeting on June 15, 2000, organizations on the abductees taken to the North after the Korean War had began to be established from September. However, there was no organization for the abductees taken during the Korean War.

Q. So you were not planning to step in.

A. By that time, I thought someone else would take the lead in addressing the issue of the wartime abductees. There are so many great people. However, no one took the lead. There was no sound from the victims, either. I waited and waited until I decided to take the lead in 2001. I wonder why so many great people stayed still while 80,000 were taken to the North.

Q. Does it cost a lot of money to run KWAFU?

A. For the first time after the establishment of KWAFU, I received 100 million won (10,000 dollars) from the government. This money is used to run the organization. Some say that I must ask the government to give more money, but I can’t. The government budget is more precious and valuable than my own money. From the rent I received for a small building on my father’s land, I take in 10 million won (1,000 dollars) and give paychecks to the staff of KWAFU. My main work is running KWAFU and my side job is managing the building.

Q. Do you face any difficulty because you are disabled?

A. I have a weak body and a poor voice. If I was better looking and had a good voice, I think the issue of the wartime abductions would be better publicized as I could make appearances on television. There was a time when my feelings were hurt.

The Public TV channel was going to cover a story on me, but it soon decided not to do because I was disabled and had a poor voice. People from the channel said this in front of my face. Broadcasting companies are still reluctant to air disabled people. I tried many different methods to publicize the issue of the Korean War abductions.

I heard one of the favorite TV programs of the families of the abductees is KBS Gayo Stage (music program), so my mother and I made appearance. At that time, I thought it would have been helpful if I was not disabled and if I was better looking.

Q. The Act on the abductees finally passed last years after being rejected twice in the 16th and 17th sessions of the National Assembly.

A. On the wall of the KWAFU office, we have a map with the names and local constituencies of the members of the National Assembly. At that time we figured out which member of KWAFU live in the area and asked them to meet the members of the National Assembly.

We took advantage of the fact that the members of the National Assembly care a lot about the votes of local residents. Kim Mu-seong of the Grand National Party and Park Seon-yeong of the Liberty Forward Party were most helpful. A total of 89 members of the National Assembly signed. Kim Jin-pyo and Song Min-sun of the Democratic Party signed and said this Act had to be passed.

Q. The issue of the abductions is related to North Korea. Why is it important to pass the resolution in the US Congress?

A. The party in charge of the Armistice Talks which began in 1951 was the US. The US at that time was well aware of the issue of the abductees. However, the US did not raise the issue at the Armistice Talks. I firmly believe it would be very helpful to publicize North Korea’s wartime crime if the US takes a proactive approach.

Q. Do you expect tangible results like the resolution denouncing Japan’s use of sex slaves which passed the US House of Representatives in 2007?

A. North Korea’s war crime of abduction can gather greater attention that Japan’s sex slave issue. Rather than negotiating on the issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea, we need to let the international community know about the issue of civilian abductions by North Korea. There is no use in negotiating with North Korea. It is well known for not keeping its promises. But we are always faithful to North Korea. (laughter)

Q. You seem to have strong feelings about North Korea as you run KWAFU.

A. After World War II, the Tokyo Trials and Nuremberg Trials were held to make the war criminals take responsibility. However, that was not the case with North Korea. I wouldn’t take a harsh approach toward North Korea if its citizens are well off. However, the situation in North Korea is getting worse.

Q. The interview has been going on for almost three hours. But you seem to have so much more to say to our society.

A. There is a saying that the truth never gets rusty. This is what I want to say after going through so many challenges. On which side will you stand? Will you be standing with those who turn a blind eye to the truth, or will you be standing with those who reveal the truth? I believe that this determines the direction of an individual and a nation alike.

After the interview, her poor voice, which a public TV channel would not allow to be on the television, was in a worse condition. However, her strong will was still standing firm.
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