Alfred Hitchcock could hardly have woven a better plot for one of his "wrong man" thrillers.
A South Korean schoolteacher on a study tour of Europe loses his passport in Norway and asks an Oslo cabdriver to take him to the Korean mission to get a replacement.The driver obliges but mistakenly drops the man at the North Korean Embassy, where he is seized and vanishes for 15 years, another victim of the unending cold war between the Koreas.
That's what South Korean officials say happened in 1979 to Ko Sang-mun. He is back in the news since Amnesty International announced he is one of 11 South Korean political prisoners in Sungho-ri labor camp near Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, along with 24 former Korean residents of Japan.
North Korea claims that Ko defected to the North to escape a "living hell" in the South, and denies holding any political prisoners.
The Amnesty report, issued July 29, said there were 600 political prisoners, including North Koreans and prisoners from other countries, in detention at Sungho-ri. It also said tens of thousands of political prisoners were being held at a dozen other camps.
South Korea's deputy prime minister, Lee Hong-koo, said Tuesday that 438 Southerners have been abducted by North Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. They include scientists, diplomats, fishermen, students, airline crew members and a film director and his actress wife.
The phenomenon seems to have tapered off since the late 1980s.
Since taking day-to-day control of North Korean affairs in 1975 - and the leadership of the country since the death of his father Kim Il Sung in July - Kim Jong Il has trained and deployed a special 20-man "body snatching" unit of elite commandos, according to South Korean observers of the North.
Pyongyang not only denies such allegations but accuses Seoul of kidnapping northerners who end up resettling in South Korea.
But North Korea seems to have a pattern of abductions, with several landmark cases over the years:
- In the most notorious abduction case, South Korean actress Choi Un-hui and her husband, film director Shin San-ok, say they were kidnapped on the order of Kim Jong Il in 1978.
Choi said northern agents seized her in Hong Kong and swept her off to Haeju aboard a freighter. Her husband was grabbed about six months later.
Pyongyang says they defected voluntarily. Shin concedes he was out of favor with the authoritarian Seoul government at the time but insists they were kidnapped.
After helping Kim's film industry, they traveled to Vienna, Austria, ostensibly to discuss film deals with European moviemakers, and defected to the U.S. Embassy on March 13, 1986. They now live in Los Angeles.
- Normalization talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang broke down in 1992 over North Korea's refusal to answer questions about a Japanese woman who was allegedly abducted and forced to train spies.
Yaeko Taguchi, a former cabaret hostess, vanished in 1978. In 1991, a North Korean agent who had helped bomb a South Korean airliner four years earlier said Taguchi taught her to speak Japanese. That enabled the agent to pass as a Japanese tourist while planting the bomb. Taguchi said she had been abducted, according to the agent, Kim Hyun Hui.