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The Surprisingly Long History of the Campaign to Rescue the “Daughter of Tongyeong” Shin Suk Ja and Her Daughters

January 4, 2012

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Shin Suk Ja and her daughters, Gyu Won and Hye Won, in Yoduk Political Prison Camp. Photo was taken 20-25 years ago and provided by Dr. Oh Kil Nam, Shin's husband.

The following article appeared on pages 8-11 in the November 2011 issue of NK Vision. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Ryan Hamilton.

The “Daughter of Tongyeong” campaign that started in Tongyeong is spreading to every place throughout the country. In Tongyeong, Bang Su Yeol, pastor of the Tongyeong Hyundae Church and head of the “Daughter of Tongyeong” Shin Suk Ja Mother-Daughter Rescue Campaign, estimates that 85,000 to 90,000 people have signed the current petition. Pastor Bang said, “It is difficult to get a grasp on exact figures, because signatures are coming in from everywhere.” Also, the North Korean Human Rights & Development Law Society (LANK), Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (Young NK), University Students for a Better Society, Youth Forum for a Free North Korea, and other university student groups are working hard the whole month of October to get more signatures from Seoul citizens.

“Daughter of Tongyeong” Shin Suk Ja, and her daughters, Hye Won and Gyu Won’s rescue campaign has been getting a lot of attention in 2011, but this campaign has a longer history than one might think. It is not an exaggeration to say that this campaign began when Dr. Oh Kil Nam entered South Korea in 1992. While it has been close to 20 years since Dr. Oh’s Shin Suk Ja Mother-Daughter Rescue Campaign started, people’s hearts are only now beginning to open up. Even the local people in Tongyeong are surprised that a campaign like the “Daughter of Tongyeong” rescue petition has become this big. “The locals all thought that this campaign would be forgotten quickly,” said Pastor Bang Su Yeol.

Kim Il Sung, Please Return My Wife and Daughters

Dr. Oh defected by himself leaving his wife, Shin Suk Ja, and his two daughters, Hye Won and Gyu Won. In 1992 he gave himself up to the Korean Embassy in Germany, and in May of that year he entered South Korea. In October of that same year, Dr. Oh had an interview with the Chosun Ilbo where he made his first appeal to the South Korean public to have his wife and daughters rescued. In 1992 the National Security Planning Agency (now the National Intelligence Service), while announcing the state of affairs of prison camps in the North, noted that the former spy and defector Oh Kil Nam’s wife and daughters were spotted in Yoduk Camp the previous April. This intelligence was confirmed by South Korean intelligence authorities.

NK Vision cover, no. 29 (Nov. 2011) - Dr. Oh Kil Nam at a rally. Various student groups organized this and other events on behalf of his family.

Since February 1993, with the release of his book, “Kim Il Sung, Please Return My Wife and Daughters,” Dr. Oh has made a truly genuine effort to spread and promote his rescue campaign to save his wife and daughters. But then Deputy Prime Minister Han Wan Sang said, “(This book) could negatively affect North-South relations.” Dr. Oh insists that for that reason the National Security Planning Agency limited the public sales of his book. And Dr. Oh says that the deputy prime minister said to burn the book.

In those hostile circumstances, an opportunity for Dr. Oh to get his family back presented itself. There was a plan, lead by the National Security Planning Agency, to exchange long-term, unconverted (political) prisoner (비전향 장기수) Lee In Mo for Shin Suk Ja and her daughters. But it is rumored that Deputy Prime Minister Han stopped the plan, and at the very same time talked to the Blue House and pushed for the unconditional repatriation of long-term prisoners to the North. The reason the Deputy Prime Minister did this was that he said it was a show of good will and it was not necessary to upset North Korea.

Defectors Confirmed Shin and Her Daughters Were Alive

Dr. Oh recalls how disappointed he was the exchange plan (involving his wife and daughters for the long-term prisoners) failed, but he has steadily continued his efforts to rescue them, even after that disappointment. In January 1994, he sent a letter to Kim Il Sung through the Korean Red Cross asking for his family to be returned. North Korea, as expected, did not respond.

In the same year, Amnesty International’s secretary general asked for an interview with Shin Suk Ju on a visit to North Korea. North Korean officials responded by saying that Shin Suk Ju did not want to have an interview. But through her rejection and that interaction, Dr. Oh found out that his wife was still alive. From that point on he wrote about his story and continued to campaign to save his wife and daughters, but the South Korean public consistently ignored his cause.

South Koreans only remembered that Dr. Oh worked as an agent for North Korea’s propaganda radio program and that before he defected his mission was to win over South Korean exchange students studying abroad and take them to North Korea. For a few years after he entered South Korea, interest in Dr. Oh’s story and press coverage was sparse.

In 1999, the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) released a written report based on information from Amnesty International (eg, a 1993 Amnesty report on Shin Suk Ja), intelligence agencies, and defectors titled, “Kidnapped Detainees and North Korean Political Prison Camps.” [We couldn’t find the 1999 KINU report, but there is a paragraph on Shin Suk Ja on p. 178 of KINU’s 1996 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea. – ed] In this report, Shin Suk Ju and her daughters were confirmed to be imprisoned by domestic and foreign sources. But still, before the 2000s Shin Suk Ja and her daughters’ story got virtually no attention.

Dr. Oh Kil Nam’s Campaign to Save His Family

In the mid- to late-90s, activists who had learned of the terrible famine in North Korea realized how serious the human rights problem was, and started to form human rights NGOs one by one. Because South Koreans’ level of awareness was very low, NGOs focused on informing people about the political prison camps and Kim Jong Il’s government. Shin Suk Ja and her daughter’s rescue campaign did not emerge as an important issue.

Also, there was the Kim Dae Jung – Roh Moo Hyun Sunshine Policy that set a mood of North-South reconciliation. In that atmosphere, the Shin Suk Ja Mother-Daughter Rescue Campaign’s voice did not grow any louder than that of Dr. Oh. Dr. Oh was unable to get his campaign off the ground because of all the skepticism from citizens and his own physical fatigue.

Since 2009 the Esther Prayer Movement has continually raised the issue of North Korean political prison camps. They proposed the idea of taking up the “Daughter of Tongyeong” Rescue Campaign cause to Pastor Bang Su Yeol. Therefore, public opinion began to form around this issue in Tongyeong, as citizens became more informed.

NK Gulag, in association with other groups, officially started the “Hye Won, Gyu Won Rescue Campaign” in November 2010. These groups did fundraising by selling postcards for one thousand won each (about one dollar). Starting the next month, from December 2010 until August 2011, they raised money for “Hye Won and Gyu Won’s Freedom Campaign Proclamation.” SAGE Korea also helped out with the fundraising with a well-timed photo exhibition in February 2011 of North Korean political prisons including photographs of Hye Won and Gyu Won themselves. They also re-released Dr. Oh’s book, “Kim Il Sung, Please Return My Wife and Daughters” under the title “Lost Daughters Oh! Hye Won and Gyu Won.”

“Daughter of Tongyeong” Case Highlighted by North Korean Human Rights Groups

Human rights groups, in the process of informing South Korean citizens of the widespread violations of human rights in North Korean political prison camps, also held a prison camp exhibition in May of last year in Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do (province). The exhibition was suggested by the Esther Prayer Movement to Pastor Bang and was held in the Tongyeong Hyundae Church. If there was anything different about this exhibition as opposed to others, it was that this exhibition stressed Shin Suk Ja’s birthplace and the place she grew up, Tongyeong, and her imprisonment.

When Pastor Bang learned that Shin Suk Ja was from Tongyeong, he immediately started the “Let’s Rescue the Daughter of Tongyeong” petition. It was a big shock for the people of Tongyeong to learn that the “Daughter of Tongyeong” was locked up in a horrific political prison camp. Shin Suk Ja’s former classmates were particularly taken aback by pictures in the exhibition, and they, through their participation in the petition, grabbed attention to this issue. The news of the petition started being reported in all different media outlets and began to spread throughout the country.

Korean Human Rights & Development Law Society (LANK), Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (Young NK), University Students for a Better Society, Youth Forum for a Free North Korea, and other university student groups are actively collecting signatures for the petition to free the "Daughter of Tongyeong" Shin Suk Ja and her two daughters.


The petition to rescue Shin Suk Ja and her daughters already has many government officials supporting it, churches all across South Korea are actively helping in the effort, and also, the North Korean Human Rights & Development Law Society (LANK), Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (Young NK), University Students for a Better Society, Youth Forum for a Free North Korea, and other university student groups are actively behind the petition and collecting signatures.

Because of all the effort put in by so many people, the formerly buried issue of rescuing Shin Suk Ja and her daughters is now receiving attention all across the country. However, before this issue emerged, North Korean human rights groups were promoting public awareness about the distressing prison camps in North Korea. So it is no accident that this petition has become a national issue. If the public hadn’t known about the horrendous political prison camps, the petition campaign could not have grown as it did. The synergy of the many organizations and people working to shed light on the human rights violations in those camps and those carrying out the “Daughter of Tongyeong” Rescue Campaign further heightened the public’s awareness.

The Government Has to Respond to the “Daughter of Tongyeong” Rescue Campaign

Pastor Bang is promoting this petition, and forming and heading up a group called, the “Daughter of Tongyeong Shin Suk Ja Mother-Daughter Rescue Campaign.” The objective of this group is to collect 100,000 signatures and make an official request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for help in securing the release of Shin Suk Ja and her daughters. 90,000 signatures have already been secured (as of October 12), so the “countdown” to the completion of the petition has already begun. And according to Pastor Bang, “Presently, signatures are coming in to Tongyeong from all over the country, so it is hard to get a grasp on exactly how many signatures we have (at any given moment).”

Apart from all that, the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea and another 27 civic organizations held a press conference on October 13 near Cheonggyecheon Plaza in Seoul to announce the “Rescue The Daughter of Tongyeong – Million Postcard Petition Campaign” to confirm if Shin Suk Ja and her daughters are alive and then seek their repatriation.

Choi Hong Jae speaks at the press conference announcing the “Rescue The Daughter of Tongyeong – Million Postcard Petition Campaign” on October 13 in front of the Dong-A Ilbo building.

At the press conference on October 13, participants sign postcard petitions on behalf of Dr. Oh Kil Nam (holding Post box)'s family.




A statement read at the press conference said, “If we can rescue Shin Suk Ja and her daughters and then those kidnapped to the North and Korean War POWs, then that will be the first step in saving our 150,000 fellow countrymen in North Korean prison camps.”

One concern at this point is that we have to keep an eye on the government and the international community to efficiently and quickly make good on the will of the citizens who signed the petitions. Even if we convey our will to UN Secretary General Ban, he can’t make the UN take any action by himself. Due to the nature of international law, we cannot expect strong actions to be taken. People must be actively involved in research that can get UN procedures moving. The current government will provide some support for civic groups’ Shin Suk Ja Mother-Daughter Rescue Campaign.

While Unification Minister Ryu Woo Ik said, “Currently, Shin Suk Ja and her daughters are not directly under our protection, and I cannot say for sure what we are going to do,” he also said, “This issue is of great concern at the Unification Ministry.” The “Daughter of Tongyeong” Rescue Campaign’s popularity has spread like wildfire, but it does not seem that it will go away as quickly as it came. It is time that our government takes the lead in rescuing Shin Suk Ja, her daughters, POWs, and abductees.

Related Article:
A Mini-Interview with Dr. Oh Kil Nam

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