Seoul - Shin Sook-ja, 70, has died of hepatitis in North Korea. The news was announced by the government of Pyongyang, in an attempt to close an episode that has lasted 40 years. The woman, in fact, was the wife of Oh Kil-nam, one of the first North Koreans to flee to South Korea. This death complicates the case even further and ends any possibility of reunion with her husband, who fled from North Korea - after a period in West Germany - in the early nineteen eighties.
Oh went to West Germany for his studies in 1970 and earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Bremen in 1985. He then left the country that year to travel to North Korea with Shin and their two daughters. Disappointed with his experience there, Oh defected from North Korea the following year while in Denmark on orders from Pyongyang to attract exchange students from East Germany.
After defecting, Oh was questioned for more than six months by US military intelligence authorities before being delivered to a West German-administered refugee facility. He subsequently stayed on in Germany, making various appeals to return the family members he had left behind in North Korea. When this failed, he headed to the South Korean embassy in Germany in April 1992. The following month, the government arranged for him to fly to South Korea, where he was introduced as a "former exchange student in Germany and surrendered spy."
At the time, the family's story was the subject of major media attention. Part of the reason Oh's turbulent experience became a controversial issue in South Korea was the fact that he claimed involvement by Yun I-sang in his decision to go to North Korea. Yun was a celebrated composer from South Korea who made his career in Germany, where he lived and worked until his death in 1995.
Oh's situation provided the perfect opportunity for government authorities to label the composer a North Korean collaborator who had been arrested by the South Korean secret service in Berlin in the 1960s over alleged espionage.
In an August 2011 interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Oh said that Yun had sent him a letter in 1985 wondering what Oh planned to do after receiving his degree. "Congratulations on your degree," he reported the letter as reading. "I think it's now time for you to play an active role in the reunification campaign. I want you to go to North Korea and use the knowledge you've learned for the sake of your fellow Koreans."
Yun and Oh were acquainted from their time working with Building a Democratic Society, a civic group mainly consisting of Koreans in Germany that was formed in 1974, when the Yushin dictatorship was at its zenith in South Korea. But those who knew Yun gave a different account of things.
Yun's widow Lee Su-ja bluntly said, "Nothing like that happened. Suppose he did feel that way," she added. "For something that important, Yun would tell him (Oh) directly. Why would he write a letter? We're not talking about a three-year-old here. A fifty-year-old man with a doctoral degree made the decision to pack everything up and take his family. Where's the coaxing or pressuring?" Oh said he lost the letter while packing for North Korea. Now, with the death of his wife, Oh has lost all hope of ever being reunited with his family.