S. Korea’s Return of Long-term, Unconverted Prisoner to N. Korea in 1993
A Korean documentary film titled “Repatriation” portrays the lives of long-term unconverted prisoners and the process of sending them back to North Korea. The long-term unconverted prisoners refer to former communist North Korean spies who were held in South Korean prisons for decades, remaining unconverted. The film won the Freedom of Expression award at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. in 2004 to raise global awareness of the scars of the division of Korea and humanitarianism. In fact, South Korea touched on this humanitarian issue long before the film was released. Here is former South Korean deputy prime minister for unification affairs Han Wan-sang to review South Korea’s return of former North Korean spy and unconverted prisoner Lee In-mo to the North in 1993.
On March 2, 1993, the president wanted to have a private breakfast meeting with me. It was only a week after I was appointed to the post in charge of unification affairs. The president wanted to talk about pending issues, including the one related to Lee In-mo. I had heard a lot about him before. Lee was frequently mentioned by Amnesty International as a victim of human rights violations. I explained to the president that relations between South and North Korea had been based on the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But I suggested that the president stop the previous policy and adopt a new one that would help each other for the sake of better inter-Korean relations. I told him that the new policy should be rooted in humanitarianism and that he could implement it by resolving the Lee In-mo issue. It was one of the important pending inter-Korean issues at the time, since then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung repeatedly requested South Korea to send him back to the North at inter-Korean prime ministers’ talks. I proposed to the president that South Korea return the old man, who was in his mid-70s, to his family in North Korea on humanitarian grounds.
On February 26, 1993, Han took office as the first deputy prime minister for unification affairs under the Kim Young-sam government in South Korea. He visited the presidential office on March 2 to have his first private meeting with the president. That day, he suggested the repatriation of Lee In-mo. Lee participated in the Korean War as a North Korean war correspondent and was arrested in South Korea in 1952 for his involvement in communist partisan activities. He was in his mid-30s. He served 34 years in prison, refusing to convert to South Korean ideologies. It was not until 1988, when he was 72 years old, that he was released from prison. The life of the ill-fated man was known to the public through a monthly magazine in 1989, and North Korea demanded his repatriation at high-level inter-Korean talks in 1991. But the return of long-term, unconverted prisoners was a sensitive issue, which was related to South Korean prisoners of war held in North Korea and South Korean civilians kidnapped by the North. To solve the tricky problem, then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam took a new approach.
I’m telling North Korean leader Kim Il-sung that no ally can be better than one’s own race.
President Kim proposed a bold paradigm shift in his inauguration ceremony on February 25, 1993. He unveiled his policy of engaging with North Korea to keep up with post-Cold War order and promote peace in the region. On March 11, only about 15 days after the inauguration of the civil and democratic government in South Korea, it announced its decision to return Lee In-mo to North Korea in the hopes of improving inter-Korean ties, starting with the solution of humanitarian problems. But the following day, on March 12, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT. Pyongyang’s unexpected move was a great shock to Mr. Han, who supported reconciliation with North Korea— a policy that was even more progressive than the so-called Sunshine Policy advocated by former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung years later.
I was absolutely devastated. Let me tell you something. On April 10, Rev. Cho Dong-jin was invited to North Korea to have lunch with Kim Il-sung. Cho later told me about his meeting with the North Korean leader. According to Cho, Kim Il-sung had high hopes after reading the South Korean president’s inauguration speech over and over again. He was particularly impressed by the remarks, “no ally can be better than one’s own race,” and he thought he would finally deal with a reliable South Korean government. When the North Korean leader said that, high officials around him looked quite surprised. That’s what I heard from Rev. Cho. But why did North Korea withdraw from the NPT, then? That’s because the hardline North Korean military had already been controlled by the leader’s son, Kim Jong-il.
South Korea believed that Lee In-mo’s repatriation could induce North Korea to change. But with the support of hardliners, then-North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-il withdrew from the NPT to choose nuclear weapons development. Due to the North Korean nuclear issue, it seemed that Seoul’s repatriation plan would be scrapped altogether. Here again is Mr. Han.
After North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, a meeting of South Korean ministers was held in the presidential office. The chief presidential secretary was pretty upset. He said, “See? That’s North Korea. Our deputy prime minister made such a kind proposal, but they repaid good with evil.” I was frustrated, of course. But when the president listened to our first work report on March 15, he told us to carry out the repatriation plan quickly to uphold the humanitarian spirit.
At the time, Han was denounced for suggesting Lee In-mo’s return, but the plan was executed as scheduled. Despite North Korea’s shocking behavior, the South Korean government believed in the importance and validity of its North Korean policy based on humanitarianism. On March 19, 1993, Lee’s repatriation proceeded at the conference room of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at the truce village of Panmunjeom. It marked the first return of a long-term, unconverted prisoner to North Korea. Wearing elegant purple traditional Korean attire of hanbok, Lee returned to his hometown in a wheelchair, grabbing the hands of his family members whom he met for the first time in 43 years. Han felt very emotional watching the touching scene.
Previously, the National Security Agency would deal with things like that. But when I came into office as deputy prime minister for unification affairs, I declared that the unification ministry would be in charge of all policies related to inter-Korean relations. I monitored the entire process of Lee’s repatriation, from the old man’s trip to Panmunjeom from his residence in South Gyeongsang Province and his reunion with his family, to the moment when he was gone from my sight. Lee worked as a war correspondent during the Korean War, and he remained unconverted for 36 years. For me, this is the most emotional part, although he and I may differ in thought. I witnessed him get out of his wheelchair to see his daughter, who warmly greeted him and helped him get into a car. After he disappeared, I called the president and reported that the situation was over.
In 2004, Han visited North Korea as the chief of South Korea’s National Red Cross to meet Lee again.
When I traveled to North Korea in 2004, I asked about Lee. Unfortunately, I heard he was in a vegetative state. I still hoped to see him, and I was allowed to meet him. He was in a wheelchair, unable to speak. He couldn’t even open his eyes, just remaining motionless. But when his daughter told him that I came to see him, he began to tremble, with his face turning red. I stood behind his wheelchair and prayed, ‘God, you returned the old man to his family and let him live to this day. Please have mercy on him and take care of his health.’ A few years later, I heard he died. Today, I still wish that the North Korean military had respected Kim Il-sung back then, not withdrawing from the NPT. This year, the inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-U.S. summit may bring about a major change in the international political map. But that change could have begun 25 years ago. It’s a shame that we missed the opportunity of taking measures to achieve peace decades ago.
Lee In-mo, Korea’s first repatriated long-term, unconverted prisoner, died in 2007. After his return, the North Korean nuclear crisis heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, sending the two Koreas back to the era of confrontation. But South Korea’s humanitarian-centered North Korea policy 25 years ago led to the repatriation of 63 former North Korean long-term prisoners in September 2000, in accordance with an agreement made between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during their summit in June that year.