Kim Dong-shik, a U.S. permanent resident and Christian missionary with family living in Illinois, was abducted in 2000 by North Korean agents in northeastern China and taken to North Korea for interrogation and imprisonment, according to testimony in South Korean courts. Kim, whose wife and two children are U.S. citizens, had raised the ire of the North Korean government by helping its citizens flee the repressive regime and by attempting to convert North Korean athletes who attended the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In January 2005, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and other Illinois lawmakers co-signed a letter to North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, describing Kim as a "hero" and demanding answers from North Korea about his whereabouts. The signatories warned that they would oppose North Korea's removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism -- long a goal of the government in Pyongyang -- until a "full accounting" of Kim's abduction was provided.
But the case of the only North Korea abductee with U.S. connections has been largely forgotten as the Bush administration has pressed ahead on a diplomatic deal to end North Korea's nuclear program. The State Department has all but ignored the pleas of lawmakers and Kim's wife for greater attention to the case. And the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee no longer believes that North Korea's removal from the terrorism list should be conditional on information about Kim.
President Bush will notify Congress that he is removing North Korea from the State Department list when Pyongyang provides a declaration on its nuclear activities, which is expected "soon," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. Obama now does not want to stand in the way of the agreement by focusing on one individual, aides say; instead, he would link the lifting of other sanctions to Kim's case.
"Senator Obama believes we should not lift sanctions on North Korea until North Korea has met its obligations to provide a complete and accurate declaration about all its nuclear weapons programs and clarified the allegations about its proliferation activities, including to Syria," said campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan. "He also remains deeply concerned about North Korean abduction of foreign citizens and expects a full accounting of their circumstances."
Kim, a South Korean who had trained as a missionary in the United States, was 53 years old at the time of his abduction and is now believed to be dead, according to his wife, Young-hwa "Esther" Chung Kim, who lives in Skokie, Ill. She said she received reports a year ago that her husband's health had deteriorated quickly as his weight dropped from 180 pounds to 75 pounds within a year of being taken to North Korea.
"He was given no food, only water," she said, adding that she was told his corpse remains in a restricted area controlled by the North Korean army.
In 2005, a South Korean court convicted an ethnic Korean man from China of helping North Korean agents kidnap Kim from Yanji, China. The trial revealed that an abduction team spent 10 months plotting the seizure, grabbing Kim in front of a restaurant when he got into a taxi. The taxi took him to another car, which brought him to the border.
Whereas the State Department once associated North Korean abductions -- especially of Japanese citizens -- with terrorism, that connection has been deemphasized in an effort to make it easier for North Korea to get off the terrorism sponsor list.
The State Department has steadily softened and eliminated a number of justifications for keeping North Korea on the list, to the point that the department's counterterrorism chief said this year that North Korea already meets the requirements for removal.
In 2006, the department's annual report on terrorism noted that the South Korean government "estimates that approximately 485 civilians were abducted or detained since the 1950-53 Korean War" by North Korea. But that line was eliminated in the reports issued after the U.S.-North Korean nuclear agreement was struck in 2007.
The State Department had also highlighted Kim's abduction -- and the fact that he was a U.S. permanent resident -- in the North Korea "background notes" on the department's Web site, but all references were removed a few months after the nuclear deal was reached. Department officials said such notes do not represent official policy, and they noted that Kim's case was mentioned in two State reports on religious freedom and human rights in the past year.
In a significant breakthrough last week, North Korea promised a new probe into the Japanese abductions, and Tokyo said it will partially lift sanctions against North Korea.