JEONJU South Korea (Reuters) - Kim Young-nam was a teenager living on the coast of South Korea when he disappeared in 1978, only to turn up in North Korea. There, he met and married Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school a year previously.
They lived together and had a daughter, with the relationship ending when Yokota committed suicide, according to North Korean officials. Japan has not accepted the version of her fate. Kim was last heard of living in North Korea.
But the contrast in how they are remembered in their home countries is stark.
More than 35 years after her kidnap, Yokota has become a symbol of Japan’s all-out effort to bring back at least a dozen of its citizens believed to be held by the North.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reopened dialogue with isolated North Korea and offered to ease sanctions in return for answers on the abductees, in what he has made a signature issue of his term in office. The two sides held talks on Tuesday in Beijing.
Kim, one of more than 500 South Korean civilians thought to have been abducted and held in the North, is all but forgotten.
“Prime Minister Abe ... obviously pushed for much more, and it begs the question: what is our government doing for those 500 people?”, his sister, Kim Young-ja, 56, said in an interview on Wednesday.
“It is so hard for us. There is nothing we can do, the victims, nothing,” she said through tears at a tea house she runs in Jeonju, a city in the southwest of South Korea.
Yokota is one of 13 Japanese that North Korea admitted in 2002 had been kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Five of them returned to Japan while Pyongyang has said that eight of them are dead, including Yokota.
Japan has identified 17 citizens it says were abducted. It also wants better proof of the fate of the eight said to be dead, as well as other missing persons who may also have been kidnapped.
While Abe has made the plight of the Japanese citizens taken by North Korea a personal crusade, the South Korean government has been reluctant to push Pyongyang on the topic.
Many of the South Korean abductees were part of programs to help train spies on culture and dialect, according to North Korean defectors who have spoken of taking part in it.
Critics say the South Korean government had stigmatized the families of the abductees, painting them as sympathizers of the North.
The stigma eased under the Sunshine Policy of engagement initiated by then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, leading to a groundswell of support for those who were missing as South Korea engaged in what was seen as “quiet diplomacy” on humanitarian issues.
But after the North torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in 2010 and later that year bombed an island, the government in Seoul slammed the door on all talks with Pyongyang and the abductee issue faded.
Many of the families of the missing are poor or working class people in rural areas with little means to plead their case, some of the families have said.
“In Japan, the government comes looking for you when you’re an abductee’s family,” said Choi Sung-yong, who heads the Abductees’ Family Union based in Seoul.
“We don’t expect our government to come to us, but over here, it’s practically impossible for a victim’s family to see a government official,” he said, referring to the stigma attached to those who were abducted.
There is no immediate plan to re-approach North Korea on the issue of its nationals abducted in the wake of the renewed talks between the North and Japan, said an official at the Unification Ministry, which handles ties with Pyongyang.
“This government will continue to try to bring back the abductees on humanitarian grounds,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “We will talk to North Korea whenever there is a chance to resolve the abduction issue.”
The two Koreas are technically still at war more than six decades after a truce suspended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim Young-nam, who would be 52 years old now, went missing as a 16-year-old high school student from an island beach on South Korea’s west coast where he was on holiday with eight friends.
The circumstances of his disappearance have not been clearly established and he was assumed to have drowned. The family reported him as likely deceased.
It came as a shock when two South Korean intelligence agents approached his sister in the early 1990s with news that he was alive and living in North Korea.
“These two men called over to me. We had forgotten the name Kim Young-nam. We thought he was dead,” Kim Young-ja said.
“We were scared. We had never thought for a minute he would be alive in North Korea,” she recalled.
In 2006, Kim was reunited for three days with his mother and sister during a reunion event at the Mount Kumgang resort just north of the Koreas’ militarised border.
There, he told his relatives that he had married Yokota in 1986 and that she died at a hospital in 1994 after the last of repeated suicide attempts, suffering from depression and schizophrenia, discrediting any suggestion that she was alive.
He said he had had a daughter with her and had subsequently re-married, to a North Korean woman.
Kim said at the time that he had drifted to the North inadvertently after falling asleep in a row boat and was rescued, a claim that is widely rejected in the South as a story he is forced to tell and implausible given the distance of more than 200 km (120 miles).
In March, Yokota’s parents met the North Korean woman born to their daughter and Kim, spending several days with the 28-year-old granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.
But hope is fading that Young-ja and her brother will be reunited again.
Asked what he did for a living, Kim said, “unification business,” according to Young-ja.
“Would you then be able to come to the South?” she said she pleaded with him in the moments before they parted.
“I think that would be difficult,” he replied.
Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan