In various locations across South Korea’s capital, John Sichi has been walking miles on a treadmill in a desperate effort to draw attention to the abduction of his two young children, who he claims were taken from their home in San Francisco and brought to Seoul by their mother over three years ago.
Sichi has been staging a one-man treadmill protest since October 2022, along with flyers and life-size posters of his children with the words “I miss my children so much” written in Korean.
For Sichi, who is “walking but going nowhere,” the endless walks symbolize his ongoing struggle with South Korea’s legal system, which has failed to reunite him with his children.
The father of two also hopes to communicate his situation with the public despite language barriers.
“The general reaction from people who see the protest is usually curiosity, and then once they understand the situation by reading the flyers and checking the website via QR code, or talking to me or my interpreter, a lot of sympathy,” Sichi tells NextShark.
“People who stop and talk often have a lot of questions about the situation, such as why the police or other government officials aren’t helping,” he adds. “Sometimes they share their own frustrations with government failures. They have also offered me lots of useful advice; in fact, many suggested the National Assembly petition, which is why we started it.”
At the time, Sichi was living with his wife and their two children in San Francisco. Due to marital issues, his wife reportedly flew to Seoul with their children in what was supposed to be a month-long “cooling-off visit” with her family.
But according to Sichi, she and the children never returned.
He said he visited Seoul in December 2019 and January 2020 to persuade his wife to come home with their children. She initially agreed to return, but by the end of February 2020 she had changed her mind, canceled the return flight tickets and withheld the children’s passports, according to reports.
Sichi then decided to take his case to the San Francisco County Superior Court, and after a months-long trial, the court finally determined in August 2020 that the children should be returned to California. During the trial, Sichi had limited access to his children through video chat.
Following his wife’s continuous refusal to comply with U.S. court orders, Sichi traveled to South Korea and, in November 2020, went to the Seoul Family Court to file his case under the Hague Convention, an international treaty established to set standards for intercountry adoptions, including cases of international child abduction.
Sichi was finally able to visit his children in 2021 after 10 months of video chatting, but these visits remained highly restricted and inconsistent.
In June of that year, the Seoul Family Court ruled that the children should be returned to their home in San Francisco. The appellate court affirmed this decision, and in February 2022, the Korean Supreme Court dismissed Sichi’s wife’s last appeal and ruled that the children be returned immediately.
Despite receiving court fines of 5 million won (approximately $3,840) and a 30-day detention sentence, Sichi’s wife continued to defy court orders.
In May 2022, Sichi and a court enforcement officer visited his wife’s apartment and attempted to retrieve his children, but they were ultimately unsuccessful as his son and daughter — now aged 6 and 4 — did not consent to leaving, and the officer did not make an effort to enforce the court’s orders.
Frustrated by the inaction of law enforcement to carry out even the country’s highest court’s decision, Sichi says he considers the situation “state-ordered child abuse.”
Having spoken with child psychologists, Sichi is deeply concerned about the way officials allegedly continue to prioritize the decisions of his children, who are too young to grasp the situation, over the court’s orders.
He worries that placing the burden of making a final decision on his children will have a negative impact on them later in life, saying, “This is basically state-ordered child abuse.”
He says he is now working toward incorporating social workers to help with the process in the hopes that they will be able to provide a less stressful environment for the children if they are eventually returned.
For a period of time after the May 2022 incident, Sichi was cut off from communication with his children, and they, along with his wife, were unable to be located.
Fortunately for Sichi, after a local broadcasting station aired his story on one of their programs called “Curious Story Y,” a member of his wife’s extended family reached out to try to connect him with his children.
Although Sichi was unable to see his children in person, he was able to re-establish communication with them through phone calls.
Despite this “mini-breakthrough,” Sichi says he remains shut out from connecting with his children as their calls are highly constricted, and besides “hello” and “goodbye,” the only words he hears from them are various iterations of “no” in Korean.
In a recent update, Sichi shared that the U.S. State Department and South Korea’s Ministry of Justice were finally able to confirm a new address for his wife and children.
All Sichi can do, however, is continue working with the local court system and hope that enough media attention will lead to a reunion with his children.
The father of two is not alone in his fight to bring his children home.
He shares that he has connected with other American parents going through similar struggles to see their own abducted children.
One parent in particular, Jay Sung, has been a major source of strength and support during Sichi’s journey.
Sung, a Korean American father from Washington, has not seen his 6-year-old son Bryan since 2019. His wife reportedly refuses to return him despite receiving court orders, fines and detention sentences.
Sichi and Sung speak daily, sharing resources and updates about their cases. Since Sung is able to speak Korean, Sichi has relied on him for help with translations and navigating the language barrier.
The two have also found greater support with the iStand Parent Network, which focuses on bringing together parents going through similar situations across the world. The organization also hosts Camp Sumatanga, a camp held every summer in Alabama for survivors of child abduction cases.
Sichi intends to send his children to the survivor camp one day: “I want to send them there so that they can be with other kids who have gone through similar experiences.”
Since gaining traction in the media, he says one parent from Texas and one from Canada have reached out for guidance as they are in the early stages of international child abduction.
“I am able to give them advice on what’s to come, and some of the processes that they will have to go through,” he shares.
In the latest ruling from Seoul Family Court, Sichi’s wife will now be fined 500,000 won (approximately $384) for every day of noncompliance.
The daily fines are set to start sometime next week.
According to Sichi, this is the first ruling of its kind, and he is hopeful that this additional pressure will move his case forward.
In order to raise awareness about his case and others like his to Korea’s National Assembly, Sichi needs 50,000 petition signatures by Feb. 24.
So far, he has just over 7,700 signatures.
“I had been taking a break from the treadmill for a few weeks to visit friends and family in San Francisco, but I’ll be back out every day next week for the petition drive, in the Gangnam area by Sinnonhyeon subway station,” Sichi says. “My last protest location in January before the break was in Gwacheon, by the Ministry of Justice’s office there that deals with these international cases.”
More information about his case and ways to help are available on his website.
Many people might not know this, but NextShark is a small media startup that runs on no outside funding or loans, and with no paywalls or subscription fees, we rely on help from our community and readers like you.
Everything you see today is built by Asians, for Asians to help amplify our voices globally and support each other. However, we still face many difficulties in our industry because of our commitment to accessible and informational Asian news coverage.
We hope you consider making a contribution to NextShark so we can continue to provide you quality journalism that informs, educates, and inspires the Asian community. Even a $1 contribution goes a long way. Thank you for supporting NextShark and our community.