The digital detectives looking for North Korea’s disappeared

Lee Han-byeol has a favorite reminiscence of her elder brother.

They have been each youngsters within the Nineteen Nineties, in the course of the famine that devastated North Korea and is estimated to have killed a whole bunch of 1000’s of individuals. Impoverished, drained and hungry, the pair have been travelling to select up rice from family. That they had been on the highway in a single day.

Lee’s eyes mist when she remembers how, as they walked by the darkness, Lee Se-il had swung her on to his again. As daybreak broke, she clung wearily to his bony shoulders. “He actually adored me,” she whispers, clutching a small black-and-white photograph of him. By now, the tears are flowing steadily. “I hope I can see his face once more.”

Lee, who fled North Korea by China in 1999, is now 38. Talking in her small workplace within the northern outskirts of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, she says the final clear sighting of her brother was in 2009, when he was within the custody of the Kim regime after making an attempt to flee.

China’s safety forces had apprehended him within the borderlands and he was transported again to North Korea. The proprietor of a guesthouse who had briefly harboured him relayed that he was crushed savagely, and that his arms and ft have been wrapped in bandages due to acute frostbite.

Lee Han-byeol in a park outside of her home
Lee fled North Korea in 1999; the final sighting of her brother was a decade later © Ashley Crowther

A number of years in the past Lee tried to seek out out extra. She made cellphone calls and despatched messages by a community of middlemen in China, and her household nonetheless inside North Korea bribed officers for info. The one outcome was a second-hand glimpse: he was apparently nonetheless in a jail camp in North Hamgyong province, close to the nation’s borders with China and Russia. Since then, no phrase. If her brother remains to be alive, he can be in his mid-forties.

As a statistic, Lee Se-il matches into quite a few classifications. He’s certainly one of 1000’s of refugees who’ve escaped from North Korea into China solely to be arrested and returned. He’s certainly one of a whole bunch of 1000’s to be detained within the kwanliso, the Kim regime’s political jail camps. And he’s certainly one of an unknown quantity, probably thousands and thousands, who’ve disappeared inside North Korea and who’re feared misplaced to their households, and to historical past, for ever.

“There isn’t any technique to actually know whether or not they’re alive or not,” Lee says. “I really feel so heartbroken.”

Now coming into its eighth decade, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea stays closely guarded from worldwide observers; even western intelligence companies battle to amass dependable info. Defectors akin to Lee Han-byeol, who now spends a lot of her time working to carry different North Koreans safely to South Korea, are sometimes the very best sources, although particulars are scarce.

However simply as North Korea’s disappeared appear on the purpose of vanishing from reminiscence altogether, expertise and the dedication of a tireless group of activists are offering one thing that has evaded the households for years: hope.

In a small, shiny workplace a couple of hundred metres from the presidential Blue Home in Seoul, the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) is constructing a digital database. The ambition of this group of largely South Korean lecturers, attorneys, cyber specialists and human rights activists is to create an archive of each single particular person thought to have been detained, abducted or disappeared in North Korea because the Fifties.

The trouble entails bringing collectively tens of 1000’s of paperwork, information, photographs and extra. Working slowly and painstakingly, the group can be compiling and mapping other lists: the key prisons, the execution websites, the mass graves, the identities of perpetrators. The undertaking has been going for 3 years now; nearly 20,000 information are already on-line and freely obtainable, with an estimated 100,000 extra ready to be processed. It’s named Footprints.

One of many early batches of paperwork loaded into the system included a UN Human Rights Council report that talked about Lee Se-il. It famous that he had allegedly been “arrested by members of the nationwide safety service” after his repatriation. Lee Han-byeol’s hope is that, because the database expands and is utilized by others, increasingly more shall be revealed. “Anybody can verify the database. Somebody would possibly find out about my brother’s scenario,” she says. “It does give me a glimmer of hope.”


The story of North Korea’s mass disappearances dates again to the nation’s beginnings. In early August 1945, Tokyo was on the purpose of surrendering to Allied forces and the query of what to do with Japan’s colonial empire loomed massive. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910; the Individuals’ concern was that, as soon as Japanese forces departed, the Soviets would “occupy your entire peninsula and transfer rapidly towards Japan”, as historian Don Oberdorfer has written.

Working late into the night on August 10, only a day after the bombing of Nagasaki, two younger US military officers, utilizing a Nationwide Geographic map, proposed an answer: dividing Korea alongside the thirty eighth parallel, about midway down the peninsula. The southern zone can be managed by Washington, the north by Moscow.

Map showing North and South Korea

For his or her puppet, the Russians selected a jowly 33-year-old guerrilla fighter who had waged warfare towards the occupying Japanese forces in Manchuria. His identify was Kim Tune Ju, however he styled himself Kim Il Sung.

It was at all times Kim’s ambition to take again management of the peninsula. In June 1950, Soviet-built tanks stormed throughout the border, by Seoul and additional south, igniting the Korean war. The shock assault was nearly profitable, driving ill-prepared South Korean and US troops to a small enclave. It was solely the bravery of South Korean suicide squads and US common Douglas Mac­Arthur’s daring touchdown in September that pressured a North Korean retreat.

Throughout that months-long occupation by the north, about 90,000 South Koreans are estimated to have been kidnapped, remaining in enemy arms as they moved again in the direction of Pyongyang. Whereas many have been taken as slave labour, others have been additionally focused for specialist expertise and expertise.

A kind of taken was Lee Seong-hwan, a younger manufacturing unit supervisor and armed forces interpreter with a spouse and two younger youngsters, who was snatched from the household house in jap Seoul by North Korean troopers. His daughter, Lee Mi-il, was simply 18 months outdated when he was kidnapped; now 72, she nonetheless lives in the identical neighbourhood and has devoted her life to discovering him and others. “My mom talked about my father loads,” says Lee Mi-il in a skinny rasp. “She believed that he was the best particular person on the earth.”

Lee Mi-il in her office
Lee Mi-il photographed in her workplace; she nonetheless lives in the identical neighbourhood as when her father was taken prisoner in the course of the Korean warfare © Ashley Crowther

Lee Mi-il’s father, who was abducted when she was 18 months old
Lee Mi-il’s father, who was kidnapped when she was 18 months outdated © Ashley Crowther

The battle turned a brutal warfare of attrition; about three million Koreans on each side — one in 10 — have been killed, injured or went lacking. When an armistice was lastly signed in July 1953, the 2 sides have been primarily again the place they began, on the thirty eighth parallel, with a demilitarised border zone between them. The settlement included provisions for the repatriation of prisoners of warfare, however 50,000 South Koreans have been by no means launched. Over time, a small fraction of those PoWs and their households have made profitable defections, carrying with them tales of slavery, torture and abstract executions.

North Korea has remained within the grip of the Kim dynasty ever since. In 1994 Kim Il Sung was succeeded as supreme chief by his son Kim Jong Il, who in flip handed over to his son, Kim Jong Un, who has dominated for the previous decade. An obsession with management and an intense concern of international affect have been hallmarks of the Kim ideology.

As Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and now a prime adviser to US president Joe Biden, notes, Kim Il Sung started indoctrinating the North Korean individuals as early as 1955 with the doctrine of juche, or self-reliance, and his place because the suryong, sole chief. Pak writes that “the regime’s opaqueness, self-imposed isolation, strong counter-intelligence practices, and tradition of concern and paranoia” make even “a number of the most mundane items of knowledge” tough to acquire. Worldwide observers’ hopes that Kim Il Sung’s Swiss-educated grandson would show a reformer have to this point proved unfounded.

Photos of those missing after the Korean War on the wall of the Korean War Abductees’ Family Union
Pictures of a few of these lacking after the Korean warfare on show on the Korean Abductees’ Household Union © Ashley Crowther

From the Nineteen Sixties to the Nineteen Eighties, a whole bunch extra foreigners, largely South Korean and Japanese residents, have been seized, usually by North Korean brokers. Some have been kidnapped for explicit expertise: to show international languages to North Korean spies, as an example. Among the many most infamous instances was the 1969 hijacking of a South Korean passenger airplane with 50 individuals on board; 11 by no means returned and their destiny stays mysterious.

Others have been kidnapped as brides for the few international males within the nation; native girls, raised on a weight loss program of xenophobic propaganda, have been repelled by foreigners. Charles Robert Jenkins, an American soldier detained in North Korea for 4 many years after drunkenly crossing the demilitarised zone in a brazen try to abandon in 1965, was required to reside with a Japanese girl who had herself been snatched whereas strolling along with her mom close to her house. Ladies kidnapped from Thailand and Romania have been pressured into marriage with detained American troopers.

There may be additionally a 3rd class of abductees: North Koreans who’ve disappeared contained in the nation into an enormous system of labour and jail camps, often despatched there for committing crimes towards the regime. Though the exact quantity is unclear, it’s more likely to be huge: of greater than 33,000 North Koreans who’ve managed to defect to South Korea because the late Nineteen Nineties, practically one in three has an instantaneous member of the family who has suffered this destiny, in keeping with surveys.

The void left by these disappearances is stark, and households usually spend many years looking for some type of closure. Son Myung-hwa was born in North Korea in 1962 to a father who had been kidnapped by North Korean forces as a prisoner of warfare and spent his life as a pressured labourer in a coal mine close to Musan by the Chinese language border, ultimately dying in his fifties.

When Son succeeded in escaping to South Korea in 2005, she spent eight years making an attempt to pay money for her father’s stays — ultimately making a dangerous journey to China to fulfill North Korean brokers who had promised to move them. On July 4 2015, his bones have been lastly buried in a nationwide cemetery in South Korea. “I needed to restore my father’s honour,” she says.

Son Myung-hwa sheds tears as she talks about her father’s case
Son Myung-hwa was born in Korea in 1962 to a father who had been kidnapped by the regime © Ashley Crowther

Son Myung-hwa shows a picture of her father’s final burial after his remains were returned to his family in South Korea
Son reveals an image of the interment of her father’s stays after they have been returned to South Korea © Ashley Crowther


For different households, getting maintain of probably the most primary scraps of knowledge — names, dates, particulars of disappearances, the place our bodies are buried — is as a lot as they’ll hope for. That is the place the Footprints database is available in.

The TJWG, a non-governmental organisation, was arrange after a 2014 special inquiry by the UN, which declared that the “gravity, scale and nature” of North Korea’s crimes towards humanity “doesn’t have any parallel within the up to date world”.

With funding from the US authorities, and different non-public and public sources, plus technological assist from a Geneva-based NGO, the group started by making an attempt to find execution and burial sites in North Korea utilizing a mix of eyewitness interviews and satellite tv for pc imagery. It now employs digital instruments together with information visualisation and geolocation software program, in addition to offering safe storage for authorized paperwork (within the hope of future trials) and photographs of those that have disappeared. Sources vary from private and non-private archives to new interviews and testimonials from defectors, together with former North Korean officers.

A seek for “Lee Se-il”, Lee Han-byeol’s brother, produces information such because the date and placement of his disappearance, and which sufferer “sort” he falls into: “Compelled repatriation of escapee. Present standing: unknown.” One other search tells a distinct story, equally threadbare. “Title: Lee Seong-hwan. Sufferer sort: Korean warfare abductee. Present standing: unknown.”

Lee Quickly-geum, 59, an advocate for the households of these taken as prisoners of warfare, was among the many first to file a video testimony for the archive. She says her father, a South Korean soldier, was sentenced to a life spent shovelling coal in mines at Aoji close to the Chinese language border.

As a baby rising up within the mining city, she hated her father for having served in America’s “puppet military”; responsible by affiliation, the household have been continually monitored. “We resented him,” she says. “I assumed he ought to have died within the warfare.”

His destiny was grim: in 1996, he was executed alongside along with her youthful brother. Labelled “spies and reactionary scum”, the pair have been tortured, probably for months, earlier than being exhibited to family, certain and gagged, then shot. Their crime, she believes, was talking out towards the regime. Lee Quickly-geum was pressured to look at.

“My brother appeared down at me and appeared into my eyes, and I noticed him shedding tears,” she says, her phrases punctuated by pain-filled sobs. She ultimately managed to flee to South Korea in 2004.

Lee Soon-geum in her office
Lee Quickly-geum works as an advocate for the households of these taken as prisoners of warfare © Ashley Crowther

A South Korean flag hangs in Lee Soon-geum’s office
A South Korean flag hanging in her workplace © Ashley Crowther

First-hand proof akin to this, researchers hope, is a way of pressuring Pyongyang to handle human rights points thought nonetheless to be widespread within the nation of 26 million individuals.

By acquiring GPS co-ordinates of a whole bunch of web sites the place they imagine our bodies have been disposed of, and linking them with paperwork, researchers now suppose they’ll observe the place some kwanliso jail camps are situated, as nicely torture and execution services. (For concern of tipping off the authorities in Pyongyang, most of the particulars they’ve acquired haven’t been made public.)

The database additionally has one other objective: to attract worldwide consideration to the plight of the Korean lacking. On the subject of writing about North Korea, argue activists, the worldwide media all too usually favor to concentrate on rocket launches and nuclear checks, oddball haircuts and militaristic parades, quite than the human tales of those that have disappeared. “Nobody listens to us, irrespective of how a lot we shout about it,” says Lee Quickly-geum.

Even individuals in South Korea usually have little inkling of their shut connection to occasions. When Daye Yoon, an IT skilled, was employed by the TJWG in 2018 to assist with information safety (together with threats from North Korean hackers), she knew little about her circle of relatives historical past — simply sketchy particulars of her paternal grandfather, who died in an incident someway associated to the north. Her dad and mom wouldn’t be drawn on the main points.

After chatting within the workplace, her colleague appeared up a listing of South Korean fishermen kidnapped in 1968: amongst them was her grandfather.

The invention has persuaded her of the worth of the work the TJWG is doing, she explains, however she nonetheless can’t carry herself to debate what occurred along with her dad and mom. “I don’t need to make them unhappy,” she says. “However after I began working right here, my mom advised me that this was most likely my future.”


Because the Footprints database reveals increasingly more of the interior structure of North Korea’s shadowy equipment of repression, activists hope that it may well assist put together for a future by which the nation is not a dictatorship however some type of democracy, and by which there would possibly lastly be a authorized reckoning.

“We’re sending a sign to the North Korean elites,” says Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, one of many TJWG’s co-founders. The message is that “one ought to tread fastidiously, in any other case you could be topic to a criminal-justice mechanism after the transition”.

The Transitional Justice Working Group in their office
The Transitional Justice Working Group desires to construct an archive of each particular person detained, kidnapped or disappeared in North Korea because the Fifties © Ashley Crowther

The group in Seoul are following within the footsteps of transitional justice researchers in locations akin to the previous East Germany, the place archivists have spent years reconstructing and brushing by Stasi files — typically piecing collectively shredded paperwork by hand — to trace the actions of the communist regime and assist Germans come to phrases with the previous.

One other inspiration for Footprints was analysis carried out in Guatemala after its civil warfare, which resulted in 1996. Monitoring down individuals who had perpetrated killings, disappearances and different warfare crimes was tough: high-ranking officers’ names had usually been left off authorisation paperwork. However researchers have been finally ready to make use of authorities information of promotions to establish who had been in cost. TJWG interviewers ensure to ask each defector questions on official information, within the hope that someday their places could be accessed.

Scott Stevens, a Canadian who co-founded the TJWG and is now its communications director, discovered himself within the discipline after shifting to Seoul in 2012 and dealing in schooling. After volunteering with defectors and activists, and visiting North Korea as a vacationer in 2013, he turned fascinated by the nation and its individuals. Even apparently innocuous items of knowledge could be valuable, he explains: “Every part from chain of command to duty or who’s making these choices at what stage. All of that may be actually helpful for accountability processes down the road.”

Once more, Stevens attracts classes from historical past: individuals who labored in Cambodia within the Nineteen Nineties after the autumn of the Khmer Rouge learnt how essential it was to find grave websites as early as potential “in order that investigations can proceed extra rapidly when the chance comes”. Ultimately, greater than 20,000 grave websites have been uncovered there after the regime’s collapse.

Not everybody believes the TJWG’s strategy is the correct one. By publicising particular person households and tales, there are actual risks that individuals nonetheless residing in North Korea would possibly endure reprisals, say specialists.

Figures in South Korea’s international coverage institution as an alternative advocate a “trade-off”: attempt to enhance the lives of atypical North Koreans by engagement and financial interplay, quite than by advocating for human rights. “As soon as we raised the human rights points up-front, then North Korea regarded it as a hostile effort to undermine the regime,” says one former senior official in Seoul who has handled North Korea. (They requested to not be named.) “I can let you know one factor for certain: ‘megaphone diplomacy’ for human rights won’t ever enhance human rights situations in North Korea.”

There may be additionally a danger that figuring out perpetrators and apportioning blame at this stage would possibly undermine efforts from inside to encourage reform, says Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based activist who leads a gaggle known as Liberty in North Korea that has helped many individuals escape and construct lives elsewhere. Efforts ought to concentrate on how, in locations akin to Egypt below Hosni Mubarak or communist Europe, the broader world signalled to individuals inside these societies that it was of their pursuits for regime change to occur.

Maps from North Korea used by the TJWG
Maps from North Korea used for analysis by the TJWG © Ashley Crowther

Highly effective individuals in North Korea have to be gained over to the reason for change, says Park: “We have to try to ensure that we don’t unwittingly persuade the related individuals contained in the nation that that transition can be very unhealthy for them.”

Shin isn’t satisfied. Activists akin to TJWG can’t afford to attend till after the regime collapses, he says, as occurred in different international locations. Furthermore, many individuals with first-hand data of atrocities are of their remaining years. “Folks weren’t prepared. Every part was occurring so quick and no one was actually ready upfront,” he says of post-war Germany and Japan. “We need to keep away from that type of state of affairs by having these information, having the personnel information of the victims and perpetrators prepared,” he says, including, “It’s a race towards time.”


When South Korea’s nationwide meeting constructing was constructed within the early Nineteen Seventies, the architects got a singular instruction for the fan-shaped debating chamber: depart house in order that representatives from the north would possibly someday be included.

These goals have light for a lot of: the 2 international locations have travelled such completely different paths since 1945 that it’s arduous to see how they may someday be united. However over the previous 4 years, South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and the kid of North Korean refugees, has staked his legacy on making reunification a precedence.

With the unlikely assist of US president Donald Trump, the 2 sides edged nearer. In late April 2018, Moon hosted Kim at a lavish summit at Panmunjom, the place the armistice was signed in 1953, and the 2 leaders embraced. In addition to voicing lofty commitments to disarm and denuclearise the Korean peninsula, they agreed to “clear up” the reunion of separated households and family.

However there was little sensible progress, with Seoul’s Ministry of Unification struggling to barter with its counterparts in Pyongyang. Up to now 20 years, solely about 60 households have participated in short, non permanent state-organised reunions. Now, as Moon reaches the ultimate months of his presidency, reunification seems as distant as ever.

In the meantime, worldwide consideration has waxed and waned. Neither admonishments by the US authorities nor frequent calls by the UN for North Korea to handle the scenario of these in jail camps or who’ve suffered torture have resulted in important change. Biden has signalled North Korean human rights shall be given extra prominence below his administration. However analysts anticipate Kim’s nuclear weapons to stay his focus.

Time is of the essence, and never simply politically. Within the aftermath of the Korean warfare, the seek for these kidnapped was led by dad and mom on the lookout for misplaced youngsters and wives for husbands; later the duty was taken on by grown-up youngsters hoping to someday meet dad and mom they by no means knew. However reminiscences of that period are disappearing quick. South Korean cities are unrecognisable even to those that grew up there within the Nineteen Sixties and Nineteen Seventies; younger individuals really feel extra distant from the previous, and from household connections they as soon as needed to North Korea.

In response to a survey that tracks South Korean attitudes in the direction of “peace and reconciliation” run by the state-backed Korea Institute for Nationwide Unification, it isn’t simply curiosity within the concept of reunification that’s fading, however within the subject of the break up altogether. Folks of their twenties and thirties ranked highest on “the division not affecting their lives”.

Leighanne Yuh at Korea College in Seoul says she has been “genuinely stunned” by the tempo at which disconnection from North Korea has turn out to be mainstream. “There was this affinity with North Korea, and this common sense that we’re all the identical individuals,” she says. “However as increasingly more time has progressed, that feeling has waned. My college students have even expressed that they really feel like North Koreans are a distinct ethnicity — which I discovered fairly surprising — and the cultural variations, they really feel, are additionally too nice.”

Lee Han-byeol holds an image of her brother outside her apartment in Seoul
Lee Han-byeol holds a picture of her brother exterior her residence in Seoul © Ashley Crowther

The TJWG is below no illusions about how arduous it’s to remind individuals of the previous. However the group insists there’s progress. Its information have already been deployed in direct inquiries to the North Korean authorities on the UN, for instance probing Pyongyang’s use of the loss of life penalty. Publicising testimonials from escapees has helped rekindle public consideration.

Probably probably the most tangible influence is memorialisation, argues Stevens: permitting households the chance to mark what has occurred to family members. Many family not hope for a member of the family to be returned and even that they’ll be capable to exhume a physique, he says: it’s sufficient for a disappearance to be formally famous. “They have been simply completely happy to inform somebody and in the event that they’re going to go away, then perhaps this info shall be recorded.”

Recording and reminding are Lee Han-byeol’s duties too. Holding the {photograph} of Lee Se-il, her misplaced brother, and speaking of the numerous others who’ve gone, she says: “I simply hope individuals keep in mind them by their identify, not simply as numbers.”

Edward White is the FT’s Seoul correspondent and Kang Buseong is an FT reporter in Seoul

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