For decades, North Korea categorically denied a policy of kidnapping Japanese citizens. Then in a stunning step last week, the North's Kim Jong Il apologized to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for the abduction of a dozen Japanese.
But Kim Jong Il's truth-telling has set off an unanticipated tempest in South Korea. Families in the South claim at least 500 South Koreans were victims of a similar kidnap policy by the North. Many Koreans, who still harbor ill feelings toward Tokyo dating to World War II, feel they deserve the same apology and argue that South Korea has been the main target of North Korean terrorism, not Japan.
"Kim [Jong Il's] apology has a substantial implication for North-South relations, something I think neither side anticipated," says Paik Jin-Hyun, senior professor at Seoul National University. "Not just families but people in general are indignant. They want to know, 'what is the government doing about this?' "
Family associations in the South long ignored or dormant are "springing to life," as one analyst put it. Angry petitioners last week tussled with police outside the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. This week, groups like the Citizens Solidarity for Human Rights for Abductees and Defectors plan to take to the streets in protest.
The issue comes at a sensitive time in the waning presidency of South Korean statesman Kim Dae Jung, and raises questions ahead of elections in December about his "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
South and North Korea last week resumed work to open a rail line that will link Asia and Europe. Next month, the North sends the largest sports delegation ever to the Asian games in Seoul, where they will compete beneath the first North Korean flag to fly in the South.
Yet Kim Jong Il's regime has steadily denied abducting even one citizen from the South and using them to train spies. In recent years, those denials have been so absolute that Seoul has stopped even raising the question with Kim Jong Il, fearing it might upset the progress of the Sunshine Policy.
Yet the North's u-turn apology to Japan, seen as a bid to bring billions of dollars in wartime compensation from Tokyo, has reverberated loudly among families of kidnap victims and a growing chorus of Sunshine Policy critics.
"Our government did not even mention the abduction issue during talks with Korea [in 2000], while Japan got an apology from Kim Jong Il," said Choi Woo-young, president of the Association of Abductee Families, whose son was snatched from a fishing boat in 1987.
South Korean families of the abducted have felt helpless, say analysts, for two reasons. First, they feel the stubborn nature of the North makes it impossible for Pyongyang to lose face by admitting the crimes. Second, in recent years the South has steered away from unpleasant issues that might cause the unpredictable Kim Jong Il to avoid talks.
This approach is now giving fodder to conservatives in Seoul who say that, however well-intentioned, the Sunshine Policy is perpetuating Kim Jong Il's regime. They say in order not to offend President Kim, the South remained silent during mass starvation in the North in the late 1990s, and that the South has bent to the North's request for dollars from Seoul rather than South Korean currency.
"The Sunshine Policy has no sense of justice," says Cho Gab Je, managing editor of the magazine Monthly Chosun. "We say nothing about murder and kidnappings ... or suffering and abuse."
Sunshine Policy defenders say that only a slow set of confidence building moves can improve conditions in the North and lead to unification. They say that aid will stave off a collapse of the North that could have dangerous military ramifications for the South.
Some Seoul officials say that the North can't admit to kidnapping because it would force Kim Jong Il to admit graver crimes, like the 1960s hijacking of a Korean airliner, or the 1983 bombing-assassination of high-ranking South Korean officials.
"Plus, we aren't giving them $10 billion dollars," notes a source close to Seoul's foreign ministry in a reference to the compensation Tokyo is expected to offer Pyongyang as part of a process of normalization.
Last week's North-South rail line ceremony near Panmunjom made newsreels across Asia. Yet polls in the South show a desire for more tangible results from the North and some argue that after national elections in December, the Sunshine Policy will change.
"In the past we placed a priority on tension reduction and reconciliation," says Dr. Paik of Seoul National University. "The next government will continue a policy of engagement. But it will be a different policy than Sunshine, one requiring more reciprocity."