May 27, 2013 - Interview with Lee Mi-Il
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2014-01-16 13:36:16  |  Hit 3568

Lee Mi-Il, “Please wear a forget-me-not flower pin on your chest for wartime abductees”

May 27, 2013
Kukmin Daily

“I am the only one who raises the issue of Korean War abductees. Others just don’t have any interest in it. I believe however that resolving this issue is the most important thing for South Korea’s modern history.”

Korean War Abductees’ Union (KWAFU) President Lee Mi-Il (64) was only two years old when her father was taken away and it has now been 63 years since she began to look for him. If he is still alive he would be 93 this year. Her father was abducted to North Korea after a man came to their house in September 1950 and told her father to follow him. Her mother, who was 28 years old at the time, tried every way she could to find out where her husband had gone. After a year of searching, all family could find out was that someone had seen her father being taken to a POW camp in Jagang province.

After being forced to part with her father in this way, Lee led a very difficult life. When she was two years old, her nanny accidentally dropped her on the floor, permanently damaging her spine. Lee’s family had difficulty finding a school that would accept her and it was not until fifth grade that she entered school. With much effort, she overcame her disability and discrimination and entered a reputable university. She later got married, but things did not work out as she expected.

After ending 16 years of marriage and working for 18 as the head of a preschool, Lee found herself pulled into the long unresolved Korean War abductee issue because of a sense of duty. She describes efforts to raise awareness of the wartime abductee issue at home and abroad as the purpose of her life.
“It is not easy to turn a group of people who have been forgotten by the public and even the government into a cause worth fighting for,” she says. “However, I believe that not only my life but also my work has been guided by God. The difficult experiences I had in my life were likely planned by Him to help me concentrate better on my work today. If I hadn’t gone through that, it’s possible that no one would have stepped up to devote their life to this issue.”

Asking God for a reason

When she was a child, Lee hated hearing the neighborhood kids calling her a “humpback.” Whenever she felt like she needed to leave her small room and meet with kids her own age she would leave the house without telling her mother. Each time she went outside, however, the unfriendly stares and whispering always forced to right back home.

“God, I don’t want to live anymore. My body is crippled and my voice is not heard. Why have you kept me alive?”

Whenever she felt pangs of sadness she would head to her small room and cry while praying to God. She could not make it to the church every week because of her disability, but her religious mother took her to get baptized when she was an infant. She also accompanied her mother to a prayer house frequently, so she knew vaguely of God.

When it was found that her damage spine had succumbed to tuberculosis, Lee’s mother had her daughter undergo spine surgery at the age of seven. Her mother would place pain relief patches on her back to relieve the pain and give her shots. When the hospital failed to cure her daughter’s illness, Lee’s mother went out to find a pastor who was said to cure incurable diseases and received prayers from him.

She was thankful for her mother’s care, but was overtaken emotionally by the thought of living her whole life as a cripple without a father. This psychological pain continued until she graduated from middle school.
“My mother had to take care of my father’s parents and three daughters so she couldn’t spend a lot of time with me,” Lee recalls. “Whenever I feel really sad I would cry to God and say, ‘It’s too hard, I want to die.’ But then one day I heard the words from God that, ‘There is a reason I have kept you alive. I will guide your life, so you must stay alive.’ After hearing these words three times more, I stopped asking Him why he was saving me. By that time I was sure that He had plans for me in the future.”

An excellent student, Lee entered Ewha University’s Garment and Clothing Department in 1967. In 1971, she married a young man who had majored in industrial design at Seoul National University. Her husband was paralyzed from the waist down.
Her husband soon found a job as a university professor and they moved to Jeonju. Her happiness, however, did not last long. One day she witnessed her husband with another woman. Shocked by her husband’s infidelity, Lee suffered a nervous breakdown. She could not eat or sleep because of her husband’s betrayal.

She turned to her Bible to find some solace, but found it difficult to focus. Then by chance she heard that a nearby church was holding a revival festival and with nothing to lose she decided to attend. There she heard God’s voice in her heart just like when she was a child.
“It was the first time I had attended a revival but I found myself repenting my sins,” she recalled. “I was doing a prayer of repentance when God said to me, ‘You are also a sinner.’

Hearing that shocked me because of all the hardship I had gone through because of my husband, but, strangely, it also brought a calmness to my heart. This was because I realized that I was a sinner so I had no right to say anyone else had done wrong. After that as I studied the Bible I found that the whole world surrounding me was beautiful. I also forgave my husband. I realized that it was because of my deficiencies rather than his mistake. So, when my husband asked for a divorce I did not protest it. We did not leave each other on bad terms. Over the years we contacted each other occasionally and I told him to never lose his faith.”

The Forgotten War-Time Abductees

After divorcing her husband, Lee return to Seoul in 1987. After qualifying to become a social worker she opened Somang preschool in 1988. She thought about opening a school for the disabled, but decided on a preschool instead. She had no sons or daughters but was most happy surrounded by children.

She opened the preschool with the resolve to plant the belief in God into her students, and she hired a member of her church to be a teacher. Lee managed the preschool for 18 years until 2006. After the establishment of KWAFU in 2001, she found it too difficult to manage both organizations simultaneously.

The reason she decided to devote herself to the wartime abductee issue was due to the Korean War abductee statistics released at a press conference during the June 15, 2000, North-South Korean Summit meeting. She could not bring herself to believe the government’s claim that there were only 485 abductees.
“I had a good understanding of the number of abductees because my mother had worked for the 6.25 Incident Abductee Family Association in the 1950s,” she said. “In the 1960s, many abductee families were accused of having family members who voluntarily went to North Korea and they suffered from discrimination as a result. I was angry at the government for reporting that there are only 500 abductees.That number might be the number of abductees from after the Korean War, but they had the gall to include wartime abductees as well. I was of the belief that the government at some point would remember and make amends, but I realized nobody wanted to talk about the abductee issue. Even the family members of abductees kept their mouths closed. So, despite my handicap, I made the decision that this issue could not be ignored any further.”

In 2001, Lee used her own money to establish KWAFU. She decided to established organization to better facilitate the collect of information about wartime abductees and publicize it effectively.
“When I told the media and government that the abductee statistics were incorrect I received no reply,” she recalled. “There was no basis for those statistics. Even though I told them many journalists and social leaders had been abducted and that my father was a victim, it had no effect. At the time, the government was doubtful that even a list of abductees existed. Then one day I heard from a friend who collects old books that he had seen a list of wartime abductees from Seoul. After some effort we finally located the list. It was written by the statistics department in the Ministry of Public Information of the time and included the names of those who had been abducted, gone missing or been killed. Most of the names on the list were well-known figures from the time.”

Lee told the media that the list had been found. The journalist who picked up the story discovered that the list was also being preserved in microfilm at the National Library of Korea.
“When the news story was released that a list existed, a family member of one of the abductees went to the National Library of Korea, made a copy of the microfilm, and brought it to the family union,” Lee said. “We found that there were five sets of lists covering the entire country. I also made copies of the ‘List of Korean War Abductees.’ With these lists as evidence we were able to prove that there were 82,959 abductees as of 1952. This figure came from lists written officially by the government. It was like a miracle. We received help finding the lists from a place we did not expect and I couldn’t help but think ‘This was not my doing. God guided me to this.’”

Don’t Forget Our Sad History

Realizing the importance of documents in her work, Lee focused her efforts on uncovering more lists and creating a database. After obtaining more lists of abductees written after 1952 she published the first Korean War Abduction Sourcebook in 2006 and later published a second sourcebook in 2009. She also held several conferences on the issue during this period.
Lee’s efforts finally bore fruit in the form of the passage of the “Law Concerning Truth Investigations for Korean War Era North Korean Abductees and the Restoration of Their Honor” in the South Korean National Assembly in March 2010. The law passed seven years after she began efforts to pass it.

“It’s hard to describe how emotional I felt when the law passed,” Lee said. “It was all the more special because we had failed twice since 2003 to pass it but succeeded the third time. We collected documents in order to raise awareness of the wartime abductee issue and these materials were used frequently in political events. I remember crying a lot when I watch these events. I would say to myself, ‘We must let people know about the wartime abductee issue as much as the post-war abductee issue.’ After failing to receive any help it all, it was really emotional to have a committee established under the office of the prime minister to investigate the abductions and work to restore the victims’ honor.”
She continued to raise awareness of the wartime abductee issue. Along with other family members of abductees, she has managed an event called “Walking the Path of Abductions” since 2001, and from 2011 she held a “Campaign to Wear Forget-me-not Flower Badges” to help remember the 100,000 abductees and POWs held against their will in North Korea. The badges read “Don’t Forget Me” and were distributed nationwide to help the public remember the victims and work for their repatriation.

However, Lee was not satisfied with just raising the issue on the domestic stage. She believes that the South Korean government’s recognition of wartime abductees alone is not enough to solve the issue. Lee says that the international community must take action to recognize North Korea’s criminal campaign of abduction during the Korean War and bring about the repatriation of surviving abductees and the remains of those who have died. As a result, Lee has taken it upon herself to pass a similar resolution in the U.S. legislature and since 2011 she has been meeting with American legislators.

“That someone like me still has to raise awareness of the wartime abductee issue shows that there is still not enough interest in the issue,” Lee says.

“Despite the fact that many Christians were victims because they were considered intellectuals and a stumbling block to the construction of a socialist society, there is very little interest in the issue within the religious community. The abductee issue is not one of ideology or even human rights. It was a criminal act against civilians that violated the Geneva Conventions on POWs. I hope and pray that this painful history becomes known to even more people and provides solace to those suffering from the pain of nation division. I also pray that this work quickly brings about the day of unification when family members on both sides can freely contact each other.”
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