Sounds of the War’s torments

Sounds of the War’s torments preview

Korean War Veterans Stories

Preface

I am currently attending an international school in Busan, where I study an American based curriculum with students from diverse backgrounds. Before I entered first grade, my family followed my father, a foreign resident employee, to Shanghai, China. When I returned to Korea, I attended international schools where I continued to create international relationships with my teachers from United States or friends from Europe. In a way, I am more familiar with foreign cultures than those of Korea.
My opportunity to meet these Korean War veterans through my time volunteering at a hospital was very special in many ways. It was a chance for me to take time to meditate upon the history of Korea, learn more about a war my generation rarely speaks about, and hear stories from veterans themselves. The pain from the Korean War endures vividly in the veterans, but the current national climate of nuclear threats from North Korea does nothing to alleviate their ache and concern. Although the tension has been alleviated recently as North and South Korea have begun to reach a compromise with the deactivation of North’s nuclear weapon, it is essential that we remember and carry the pain within our hearts.
I began to conduct interviews with these honorable veterans with a desire to share their stories and recollect the past, and to be reminded of the war’s harmful effects and beneficial lessons, all in relation to the relevant and volatile present.
One thing that all the interviews had in common was that afterwards, the veterans would grasp my hand or pat my shoulder and say with utmost sincerely, “Thank you. Thank you. You are doing really good work.” At first, I was confused at their overwhelming gratitude. Truly, I was the one grateful for their response and cooperation for the interview. I was the one asking them to take time out of their day to share a past that they might not have wanted to relive.
But the more interviews I held, the more their responses made sense. My friends from abroad and my school’s teachers’ families abroad all contact us with worry and fear, asking, if we are doing okay in a country that is at the verge of another war. The people in Korea were immune to such fears. Although the threat of another war made headlines daily all over the world, the possibility of it actually breaking out never occurred to us in our day-to-day life. But how worried the war veterans must be in light of all this – Their gratitude for me stemmed from their lasting pain and vivid memories of an unexpected breakout of another war and my active desire to learn more and truly feel what war was like, and to feel the motivation to prevent another tragedy.
Besides the slaughter of compatriots in countless battles, one of the most tragic results of the war was the separation of families. Many of the veterans I interviewed were separated from their families at the onset of the war, and they were never returned to each other, after the 38th parallel was drawn. Even when they were allowed to visit, many of them could not be found and returned, which led to assumptions of death or torture.
After three bloody years, the war did come to a halt, but the division of the nation led to the construction of two, very different countries of very different ideologies. South Korea, which started to rebuild itself into a liberal democracy was able to reconnect with the world and experience the import of various cultures and ideas, whereas North Korea isolated itself from the rest of the world and has been stuck in its brain-washing, dictator-idolizing past from 70 years ago.
The victims of war were not only the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for this country, but the upcoming, damaged class of youth who would grow up in North Korea after the war. While I was born into a country that may not be perfect, but is always striving toward free speech and representing the people, people my age are being taught idolatry and hatred for South Korea and America. The fact that people risk their lives to cross the Amnok River (Yalu River) to move to a country of freedom, is indicative of the hellish conditions that make up the country of North Korea today. The youth, who had no fault but to be born into such a nation, must be looked after and helped, especially the ones who risked their lives to come to South Korea for help.
As several of the veterans that I interviewed mentioned, current warfare is less of conventional weaponry of rifles and tanks. Instead, current warfare potentially involves the diffusion of chemicals which lead to permanent biological damage or death, cyber-hacking and stealing of national security, and/or nuclear weapons, which can wipe out cities in a matter of minutes.
Because these cases have only occurred a few times in history but continue to develop in exponential rates in countries, it is easy to forget the threat of war which lace the political talk between tense nations. Politicians quell the threats and fears by mentioning the past tragedies, but they do not feel imminent or real to us, quite yet. This is why I believe that it is important to look back on these tragedies and man-made disasters to understand the importance of peacekeeping in our international and national relations today.
Lastly, I would like to thank all the veterans who gave me their time for these interviews, the public relations director of the 6.25 Korean War Veterans Association, the UN Cemetery Administrative Committee, and Mr. James Grundy.

 

 

Hee Mo Park

President of the Korean War Veterans Association
Born: November 14, 1932

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For a man who represented the association for veterans of the Korean War and had survived the war himself, President HeeMo Park had a kind and soft countenance and an equally gentle voice. It was hard to imagine that nearly seven decades ago, he was a student enrolled in Posung Middle School located in North Gyeongsang Province, preparing to volunteer for the army and enter officer training. He would have been around my age, yet his story was, for me, the story of books and movies.
“The North Koreans probably assumed victory before the war even started,” veteran Park began. He explained that Kim Il-Sung, the leader of North Korea since its establishment in 1948 to his death in 1994, was confident that the North Korean army could advance southward at 10km and reach Busan in 50 days. But what the North Korean leaders could not foresee was the fervor of the South Korean army and the United States’s drastic, last-minute decision to participate in the war.
After the fall of the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949 and the Communist Party’s succession, the United States was placed into a state of shock and emergency. The Soviet Union, which had been its ally in the second World War, had now become its enemy and on top of such, China had turned over to the Communist side. This was the reason why Harry S. Truman, President of the United States at the time, made the executive decision to enter the war and prevent the North Korean People’s Army’s hit-and-run attack of the South.
The political background of the war had escaped me. Every day, I lived in a democratic society with free speech and Internet access, where I could interact globally with other free societies
of developed countries. It was rare that I took a moment to think about the cost of this democratic freedom. In veteran Park’s time, democracy was something the youth had to fight for.
But veteran Park admitted that he, too, did not understand the political consequences at the time. The North Korean Army had already advanced as far into Yeongju, a month after the start of the war, and he volunteered for military service in July 16, 1950, neither out of a lucid political vision nor a fateful sense of duty, but rather, because he was tired of his life as a refugee in his own country.

Korean War

                    “The United Nations Intervenes”       -Encyclopedia of Korean Culture-

“I was 3701056,” veteran Park recited without hesitation. An interesting fact was that all the veterans I interviewed, in their old age, recalled their military serial number with perfect memory. He began as a private soldier, but with a recommendation from his immediate superior Joong Hyun, the brother of the singer In Hyun, was sent to a training camp to receive officer’s training.
But what veteran Park discovered at the honorable training ground was not what he had expected. The Officer’s Training School in Dongrae-gu was simply a series of tents with around 150 soldiers gathered there. That was all there was to the special Officer’s raining School. After the training, veteran Park relocated to the Army Infantry School where he completed a six-month course and became a commissioned officer.
One of veteran Park’s early memories as a platoon leader was when he was stationed on the border of Nam River, which divided the North Korean People’s Army to the north, and the South Korean army to the south. He suddenly received an order to lead a small army to enemy camp and retrieve a prisoner from the North. Although he led the army wearing his officer’s uniform and carrying a clear non-threat signal, a North Korean soldier shot concentrated gunfire at him, out of anxiety during the high-tension situation. He had to make an emergency retreat from the mountain ridge, and due to this unexpected attack, he ended up injuring his ankle.
Fortunately, this instance resulted in only an ankle injury, but it was also a reminder of the importance of a country at war. Veteran Park had become a soldier simply out of a desire to escape his mode of living, but once a soldier at war, he discovered a deeper purpose – to defend his country. But above all, Veteran Park’s journey was inspiring because of his utmost humility.
Veteran Park spoke of the laborers and workmen of the time and how they contributed to the effort. He seemed to read my mind, recognizing that I was more fascinated with the story of generals and officers. But the people veteran Park wanted to bring to the spotlight were the men of the A-frame army.
They were called the A-frame army because of the carrier they had on their backs, shaped with wooden frames into the letter ‘A.’ These men were in their 40s and 50s, who could not actively fight as young soldiers could, but still contributed by climbing mountaintops with these heavy frames on their backs, stocked with rations, artilleries, and other necessary supplies.
They often brought fortification supplies to the troops so that they could set up camp or establish a fort. If the men stepped unto mines or were shot on their way to deliver the supplies the soldiers depended on, it meant a day without food until dawn, when more A-frame carriers would arrive.
The workmen squad included 30 platoon members, and they would carry breakfast, lunch, and dinner and wrap the meals up into a single bundle and pack them with ammunition for each trip. These men I had never thought about or heard much of, were the men who brought fondness and gratitude to veteran Park’s eyes.
“These men were heroes who could never be recognized because they were already in their 40s and 50s at the time of the war. They never received the post-war benefits from their country for their service. I am extremely grateful for their service.”
Veteran Park’s stories forge in my mind a single word: Sacrifice. The A-frame carrying workmen that veteran Park talked about must have known that they could possibly not live to see the end of the war. They were fighting for peace that they would never enjoy. Veteran Park, a young man barely entering his twenties, stood up to fight for a cause he could not possibly fathom when he volunteered. It only became clear to him later as he saw his fellow soldiers fight, die, and survive beside him. The whole country was in a unified state of mind, sacrificing their personal freedom and lives for a greater cause.
“I hope to pass on the patriotic spirit, that coursed through the veins of the soldiers that fought through life and death, to the post-war generation and provide them opportunities to understand the meaning of what it means to defend one’s country.”

A-Frame Army.jpg

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                                “A-frame Army”        -Korean National Cultural Heritage

 

 

Jae Shik Yoo

Born: April 5, 1932

 

Jae Shik Yoo.jpg

I came across veteran Yoo through a book called, Protecting One’s Country for Everyone by Jung-Ok Jang. An interview with veteran Yoo was in the book, and I was so touched by his stories that I wanted to meet him in person. I contacted the Korean War Veterans Association and asked if I could meet him. The PR manager was happy to hear about my interest in the veterans’ stories about the war and willingly helped me get in touch with veteran Yoo. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had a bullet stuck right above his heart and has lived this way for the last 64 years. He said that in order to know how this came about, he had to start from the beginning.
Born in 1932, veteran Yoo was a fifth year student at Chuncheon Middle School (currently 11th grade) when the war broke out in 1950. His hometown was located 10km from the 38th parallel, where tensions ran high.
“Our country was very chaotic at the time. The 6th Division 8th Regiment 1st Battalion was stationed in Chuncheon, and the 2nd Battalion was stationed in Hongchun. On May 4, 1949, the two battalion commanders teamed together and rallied their troops and crossed the 38th parallel under the pretense of a protest.” Several of the soldiers rushed back down South when they discovered that they were led across the 38th parallel.
This itself was not the cause of the war, but it still caused an uproar and contributed to the extreme tension between two sides near Gangwondo Province. It was amidst such tension of “who did what” “who is threatening” that the war broke out on June 25.
Because veteran Yoo’s hometown was located not far from the 38th parallel, the North Korean soldiers frequently came down and attacked the slash-and-burn farmers. At least, they attempted to. Most of the time, the Korean soldiers were able to easily push them back. Everyone believed that even if war were to break out, it would end with an easy victory for the South Koreans. This belief received a shock when the North Koreans pushed all the way down to Busan in 3 months since the break-out of the war.
When the war broke out, the National Army ordered the Chuncheon base to mobilize the students. This was their way of telling them to put the students to work. The students were to cart out the ammunition and supplies to the military. Veteran Yoo volunteered, carrying the ammunition boxes and using the A-frame to transport supplies. But after three days of this labor, there was news of his hometown being directly under threat, and he had to leave the place with his family. His father was working at the Soyang River, which involved collecting timber and tying them up into rafts to send across the river. His grandfather, mother, and younger sibling were at home, and veteran Yoo being the eldest, led them and fled the city.
On their way, shells continually came down and tanks were rolling in, and a large fragment flew squarely onto his grandfather’s face. Despite the injury, they had no choice but to temporarily spread bean paste onto the wound and continue to flee. In retrospect, veteran Yoo flinched at the thought of the pain his grandfather must have been in.
But their fleeing did not last long. The North Koreans were advancing at a much faster rate, and they realized that they would not be able to run away from them forever and that a life on the run was more risky. They started back for their hometown.
Upon their return, they discovered that their town was already under the North Korean rule. All the policemen had left, and some landowners had stayed. Their reason for staying was, “I did not do anything bad; all I did was give land for tenant farming.” But the North Koreans took over the town, gathered the landowners and placed signs on their backs that read: “I am a traitor of the People’s Republic. I am a traitor of the people.” Then they led the townspeople to the main square and held a court trial.

Scene on People's Court
Scene on People’s Court after North Korea has seized control of Seoul on July 2, 1950    -National Archives of Korea-

The village foreman and landowners were forced to kneel down in the center while the townspeople gathered around them. One person would shout, “This person is sucking the blood from the People and exploiting the laborers. What should we do with
him?” Then the North Koreans who were planted in the crowd would shout, “Kill him!” And the townspeople just looked at each other and did not protest. When no one would protest, the conclusion was, “We the people punish him.” They were dragged away to a nearby brook and slaughtered.
I had seen such scenes in movies but thought they were created for effect or being exaggerated, but veteran Yoo had witnessed it himself and recalled such days with vivid memory. It was worse than the movies. The tension was high; everyone was a potential traitor. Trust was broken among the same people of the same neighborhood. The North Koreans had a way of forcing people to surrender or turn their backs on their loved ones. But because everyone was poor and starving, stripped of their land and possessions, it was difficult to blame them for their moments of weakness.
Once the North Koreans completely took over the town and occupied the land, they offered to give land for free if the people could prove that they were loyal to the People’s Republic. And because people were so poor back then and having land meant having wealth, everyone began to become communist. At night, they gathered and taught themselves communist songs such as “General Kim Il Sung’s Song” and “Cowards, leave us! We will defend the red spirit.”
Another controversial issue was the process of paying a wage in kind with peppers through a 4:6 ratio. For example, assuming that a single pepper tree grew 10 peppers and a 400 square yard of pepper trees had around 1,000 peppers in total, a farmer of that land had to pay tribute 400 peppers to the People’s Republic.
But not all land is the same, and sometimes a farmer might have bad soil and another farmer may have good soil. But it was a fixed and flat fee to the ruling party, and there was no way around it. If you did not give back to the North Korean People’s Republic, you were labeled as a reactionary and a traitor and were caught and punished. So some people bought peppers from others and tried to give them to the Republic or borrow from their wealthier, more fortunate neighbors. This was common practice with not only peppers, but also with other cultivations. The people were at the mercy of the ruling party’s demand for produce, and this, too, was form of war as people fought to save their livelihood.
It was because of such harsh measures that the South Korean people began to give up and decided to join the communists by learning their songs and chants. The North Koreans also held nightly routines where they would teach about the superiority of the People’s Republic to the South Korean people. Veteran Yoo remembered feeling terrified and frightened when a night class ended around midnight, and he heard adults going home, gleefully singing the communists’ song.
Such was the life at his hometown. One day, veteran Yoo witnessed a neighborhood friend getting caught and being dragged away by North Korean soldiers. He and his friends were afraid that they would one day randomly get kidnapped and killed, so they hid in the mountains.
The mothers took turns to sneak them meals while they were in hiding. They survived in the mountains in hiding until they heard the news that the South Korean soldiers, who had been pushed all the way to Busan, were pushing back up north and reclaiming Seoul. After the Incheon amphibious operation, the South Korean army was making a comeback. Veteran Yoo came out of the mountains with his friends shouting words of victory for the reclamation of Seoul, and decided to enlist in the military on September of 1950 in the 6th Division of the student soldiers.

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Salutation of civilians after return to Seoul from Incheon Landing Operation      -National Archives of Korea-

Because a student soldier was considered an official man of the military, he wore his school uniform and carried a single M1 gun and signed up to join the search party. He was appointed in the 6th Division of the Reconnaissance Company. His first battle
was reclaiming the Hwacheon water power plant which was in the enemy’s hands.
Veteran Yoo recalled being so driven to the goal of reclaiming the power plant that he completely shut out from his mind the fact that his friends were dying beside him. He did not feel fear. He went toward the front and rushed across to the mid-slope of the mountain where the power plant was located. They plundered carbine guns, but the guns that they plundered were too big and heavy for him, so he asked his superior if he could just use his personal rifle.
Because veteran Yoo was determined not to die and to claim victory for South Korea, he obeyed the commands of his superior with amazing speed, efficiency, and obedience, that his immediate superiors begrudged him and always handed him menial tasks such as dishwashing. “Such was the culture of the army.”
After the recapture and occupation of Cheorwon, they decided to stay overnight at the Labor Party office. But in the basement floor, there was a mountain of dead bodies of the North Korean
soldiers. It was impossible to take a step inside, and seeing that many dead bodies at once was truly an impressionable sight. They allowed some soldiers to enter the room to see if they could find a family member in there, just in case, but overall, the sight was too frightening for anyone to stay in the same room for any longer than a minute.
“That night, I had a difficult time falling asleep to the wailing and sobbing noises as people thought of their families, who were possibly dead.” They headed toward Wonsan the next day. When I asked if the North Koreans ever felt threatened by South Koreans during the war and if they surrendered just like how the South Koreans turned, veteran Yoo described seeing some North Koreans carrying poles with white fabric ripped from their boxers. It was their way to expressing surrender.
This reminded veteran Yoo of another story that touched him deeply. “I still feel apologetic when I think about this, but at the time, as student soldiers, we were always freezing in our student uniforms. So when we came across dead American soldiers, we stripped them down to their underwear and wore their clothes.” Around 35,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed to Korea at the time of the war. “Without their help and the UN, our country would not be where it is today. We must feel grateful and never forget their aid.”

 

학살
Image of mass murder of South Korean civilians during North Korea’s retreat       -National Archives of Korea-

Another memory veteran Yoo has of the U.S. army was when his division was advancing northward until they reached near Amnok River (also known as Yalu River), and hundreds of U.S.
planes passed overhead. The parachute troops came down and in two to three hours laid out iron planks to create a quick, temporary landing and lift-off strip. They also set up bridgeheads to allow tanks to travel underwater. Veteran Yoo, along with other Korean soldiers, were awed by the U.S.’s technical advancements and overall swiftness and expertise.
Once the U.S. arrived, and the South Korean military was recovering from being pushed down to Busan, everyone believed that the war would end soon – until the rumor that the Chinese communist soldiers would be crossing over the border soon. Star shells broke out at night, and a torrent of bullets woke up everyone. Most of the platoon soldiers were killed, and everyone was running around in chaos. To go North was to face the enemy unprepared, the go South was to allow the enemy to keep pushing downward. Veteran Yoo and his friend decided to go north but around the emerging forces, then take a detour and move back south.
After escaping the sudden, hellish attack, he reached a stadium at North Pyeonganbuk-do. The 6th Division was located there. There, they told veteran Yoo that he had the option of enlisting officially in the army or go home. He decided to enlist in the army.
It felt good to receive my official military uniform, helmet, and monthly salary. Many student soldiers died without ever having had military serial numbers, so we should feel pity and gratitude for their sacrifices.”

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  KOREAN WAR/COMBAT

The 187th U.S. Airborne Regimental Combat Team conducts a practice jump in South Korea   -NARA: National Archives and Records Administration-

Veteran Yoo became an administration personnel for the data and information service of the 6th Division. He thought that office work would be convenient and relatively more comfortable, but the hierarchical treatment from his superiors was unbearable, so he left and applied to become a military cadet. Then he passed the test and entered the Gwangju Infantry Hospital in August of 1951, where he received training, and a rank insigna. Then he went to the battlefront. In 1952, he became a second lieutenant and then a platoon leader. Soon after, he participated in the battlefield for one year and six months.
In 1953, he went to the Officer’s Basic Course (OBC) as a first lieutenant to train further, but although the program was supposed to be 4 months long, the defense line was under threat, and he had to be deployed right away to the front lines.
“The reason was because all the second lieutenants, first lieutenants, and captains were killed in battle, so they were literally running out of lieutenants, captains, officers, and generals to lead. We were called in to take their place in the emergency.”
The army headquarters sent a plane to the school to put students on the plane and send them to the battlefront. In the midst of training, this tragic order was made for all the unprepared, young men. When veteran Yoo arrived at the scene as well, the situation was desperate and chaotic, and soldiers were placed into positions of platoon leader and regiment leader and back and forth, placed into temporary roles until they could sort things out.
Listening to veteran Yoo’s story, it was already a miracle in my mind that he had survived until this point. Veteran Yoo described himself being fearless most of the time, not because of a shiny, noble bravery, but rather, out of momentary fear and desperation or single-minded will for victory and life.
“I will tell you what the situation was like. In the army, they cut our hair and took our nail clippings as articles left by the deceased. They prepared for our families to come and identify us if and when we died. We were prepared for death, long before we were prepared for war.” The army sent the articles to the national cemetery for future reference.
One jet-black night in July, veteran Yoo could not even tell where he was, but following orders, he climbed up a mountain. The next thing he knew, he was witnessing the Geumsung Battle so close to the mountain slope, that the Chinese soldiers were as close as 100 meters from where they were.
If they yelled, “Hey, you son of a b-tch!” they could hear the Chinese respond in Chinese. Both sides dug trenches and lived underground lives. They set the guns so that the tree branches would release the trigger of their M1 rifles if the enemy even raised their neck above the trench. They did the same.
“Life in the trenches, living with our heads constantly down, was filthy. Everyone went to the bathroom in there, and large, summer flies smelled out the waste and clung to our filth.”
In the evening, the A-frame army would come and bring food and supplies. The soldiers ate dinner at 11P.M. and left the rest of the food for lunch. Because they could not lift their heads an inch above ground, they spent most of the daytime hours digging moats and working in the trenches. Because it was hot and stuffy in the summer, everyone was stripped down to their white underwear, regardless of rank. And regardless of rank, if the enemy fired large bullets and they were shot, their limbs were rip apart from their bodies and get stuck in the tree branches.

구멍

Leatherneck machine gun crew dug in for night in Korea 1950        -US Department of Defense/USIA-

On July 13, the enemy decided to make a final, large-scale launch and attacked the trenches. But just the day before, the regiment commander walked around the premises at night and checked the trench-work. He stopped at veteran Yoo’s team’s trench and angrily reprimanded the soldiers:, “Ah, did you make this trench convenient for running away? What is this? Remake it now!” They relocated to another slope of the mountain and created a new trench, and although they grumbled their way through the labor, it was what saved their lives.
The result of the enemy’s attack was the slaughter of infantry, platoon, and squad all alike,except for the seven survivors of veteran Yoo’s trench. The next morning after the fatal attack, veteran Yoo and his squad went to the main line of resistance at Gyoam mountain and discovered heaps of dead bodies, from both sides. Both sides had suffered immensely. I imagined that dead bodies collected in a small hill-like pile, regardless of which side, would never be a pleasant sight.
They felt that going in the direction of Geumgseongchun would lead them to a confrontation with the enemy, so veteran Yoo, recalling his childhood at Chuncheon, which was a region with a body of water, decided to lead his small squad of seven to a nearby river. He felt he could utilize the water somehow to help them survive.
But around that time, it was monsoon season, and there were regions where the water came up to their necks. They often waded through flooded rivers and streams, with their guns poking above the water. But they would constantly get pushed down with the flow of the river, then they would have to swim back in the direction they were going, and they had to fight through this process to get to where they wanted to go. It sounded to me like taking three steps forward, two steps back, feeling as though they were getting nowhere.
“The seven of us were traveling this way, when we came across a Chinese communist soldier. He said something and shot at us, and we all ducked under the water to dodge the bullet, but one of our members received the shot on the nape of his neck. He began flailing in the water, screaming for help, but eventually died. In this way, the six of us reached the bank of the river.”
Because there was no executive management or order, veteran Yoo who was a platoon leader at the time, ended up becoming an infantry leader, out of need and lack. He gathered around 100 soldiers and led the troop continuously north. The Chinese communist soldiers were defeated in South Korea land and were
busy fleeing north as well, and the whole ordeal was nothing short of absolute chaos.
At night, South Korean occupiers and the North Koreans occupiers stationed themselves in hills and mountain slopes. They communicated through a two-way radio system about who conquered what. Most battles happened on the mountainsides, where both sides ended up using the dead bodies as shields.
“It was difficult to excavate all the bodies, and many people could not find many soldiers at the national cemetery because of the way these bodies were treated and used on the mountain slopes. Then they were tossed down or they were naturally pushed downward. They rolled down the slopes, and the bodies cannot be found.” Not only could they not be found, but once found, they were so torn and broken that it was difficult to identify them. Their deaths were gruesome and merciless; after all their service to the country, many of them could not even be recognized for recognition.
July 20th was not a significant day in the timeline of the war, but it was a special day for veteran Yoo. It was the day Su-bok Lee, a subordinate of his whom he was very close to, passed away. They both used to be student soldiers and were the same age. Veteran Yoo especially liked him and took care of him and was close to him enough to even give his undergarments that his mother made for him. One day, they were both lying on their stomachs, just having a regular conversation, when suddenly there was silence, and no reply to something that veteran Yoo had said. Veteran Yoo looked to his right, and soldier Lee’s forehead was touching the ground, and there was blood dripping out of his ears.
“I thought, I am technically his superior. I should have gone first. At that moment, I was filled with so much emotion at the unfairness of it all, and I decided nothing would stop me now from fighting until my death, not just for my sake or the country’s, but for his. I think I lost my mind then.In my insanity, I charged into enemy camp shooting 20-something people. I didn’t even give them a chance to throw a grenade at me. The Chinese communist soldiers began to run away in fear when I came across their leader.”
Veteran Yoo held a carbine rifle, and the Chinese leader held a submachine gun. They shot at the same time, and the last thing he heard was the enemy scream in pain and fall as veteran Yoo also lost consciousness.
Blood would not stop spurting from his mouth, and his entire face was drenched in blood. The blood flowed downward and wet all his undergarments. His subordinates carried him into the mountain and to the medical infantry men. They treated him with three times the amount of morphine they were supposed to give him. “Perhaps they thought I would die anyway and wanted to send me off peacefully,” veteran Yoo thought. They relocated him to Hwacheon’s mandatory treatment center. Veteran Yoo recalled nothing of this time and only realized what happened and how he was carried from one place to another after he spoke to his fellow men later.
Veteran Yoo’s consciousness came back to him on the campus grounds of Chuncheon middle school, where there was a mobile surgical hospital in the gym. There were hundreds of men lying down, all around me, stripped to their underwear. Everyone was in pain and dying; there were many that were suffering from fatal injuries. Veteran Yoo could still recall the terrible noises and smells of that room. It reeked of death, or the onset of the death.
“The doctors were busy, but there were too many patients. I thought that if I didn’t call to get one of the doctor’s attention, I was truly going to die. I called to a medic and showed him to my rank and name on the band of my underwear and asked for IV. He followed my ‘orders’ and strapped me to an IV, and I was relocated to Masan.”

병원

Field Hospital during 6.25 war         -National Archives of Korea-

Veteran Yoo was too injured to even sip water on his trip down to Masan, which was why he firmly believed that the IV saved his life. It provided him with liquid and nutrients that he needed; otherwise, he was sure he would have died.
When he fully regained consciousness in the sickbed in Masan, he learned that the bullet that the enemy shot was stuck in the immediate vicinity of his heart. The bullet of the submachine gun had hit his left shoulder, and its impact, along with the weight of his gun, which he was holding, ended up breaking his left shoulder entirely. The bullet traveled downward and broke 8 of his 10 ribs and on the ninth rib, it bounced up and broke through the lung and stopped right at his heart.
I could not think of another story that had to do with such a close life or death situation. It was almost as though the bullet decided to spare him, after destroying him from the inside. Just an inch further, and he surely would have died. During his period of treatment at the hospital, the war ended, and the military hospital performed multiple surgeries on him to remove the bullet. But with the level of medicine at the time, the doctors could not take out the bullet from his body.

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                         Veteran Yoo’s X-ray Film

Six months later, strangely enough, he could not feel any pain or aftereffect from the bullet. The army surgeon there told him that it was a miracle that happens once a thousand cases. Veteran Yoo laughed while he told me this, which struck me since he was so close to a death situation. I felt immensely thankful that he was alive for me to hear his story.
After the treatment of the war wound, the soldiers must be deemed qualified to continue to serve in the military, but veteran Yoo received the decision that he was no longer physically fit to serve in the army. He objected and requested a meeting with the head doctor.
“I felt like if I did not serve my country at the vanguard of this war, then I would not even be able to close my eyes in death. I sincerely beseeched them to allow me to continue my military service.”
I could tell from his voice that veteran Yoo did not regret his decision to stay loyal to his service in the army to this day. It made the most sense for him to stay in service, after all his fellow soldiers, superiors, subordinates had fought for their lives and died. Their cause and sacrifice could not be wasted. After the meeting, they allowed him to continue, and he fought at the Battle of White Horse, became a 6th Division 2nd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, even went to Vietnam to serve as a logistics support commander. When he returned to Korea, he became the 2nd Regiment leader of the military zone, the second tunnel.
Veteran Yoo’s career was long and eventful. He truly served until his absolute retirement and did everything he could for the Korean army. Although he did not receive a medal for distinguished service, he joked that the bullet stuck next to his heart from live ammunition, was his ultimate spoil of war, an honor for life and service that no one else had.
Veteran Yoo, like many of the veterans I met, had the sincere desire to share with the current generation the stories of the Korean war. “The sacrifice of the soldiers should never be forgotten. The sacrifice and generosity of the UN soldiers as well. We must treat them with the utmost respect and must aid them in their time of need. We must never forget this.”
Veteran Yoo’s epic stories of his time at war was over the course of a man’s life, from youth to very advanced age. What had taken up an entire man’s lifetime could not simply be forgotten. It was a large part of Korean history that has shaped this country into what it is today. What we have today could not be gained without all the loss and pain of all the veterans who fought for us.

 

 

 

Young-bok Yoo

Date of Birth: April 1, 1930

CYMERA_20180222_173003
Sitting across from me, this was not veteran Yoo’s first time being interviewed. He had already interviewed with the Washington Post and The New York Times. He had even published an autobiography, which was also translated and published in the United States. He, like the other veterans, was a living witness of history. But this chapter is about veteran Yoo’s experience as a prisoner of war in his own country.
Korea gained its independence on August 15, 1945, and celebration was short. Quickly, tensions began to build between the north and the south as Korea became the new axis for determining who was ahead in the ideological power struggle – Would Korea, weak and newly liberated, be exploited by the communists from the north? Or would Korea stand on its own feet as a free, democratic country?
Japanese colonialism would be a painful scar in the history and memory of the Korean people for a long time to come, but no one knew that just five years after liberation, there would be a civil war that would last for more than half of a century, dividing the country that was still healing from its recent wound.
The actual war between North and South Korean began suddenly, and there was chaos, and people scrambled to either fight or flee. Somehow, veteran Yoo found himself enlisted in the North Korean People’s Army, not because of party loyalty or ideological disposition, but because he did not have much of a choice. The fall of Seoul was the alarming point that led almost every young man to be scooped up and taken to the volunteer army. He and his friends found themselves taken into the North Korean People’s Army, filed and standing in their lines, and that was how it came to be. He did not know at the time what kind of tragedy this would bring him hereafter.
So he started off in the war fighting for the North Korean People’s Army, but once the UN forces and US forces came to the South Korean army’s aid, the North Korean army began to lose their edge and recede. During this transition phase, many injured and weakened soldiers were dismissed and discharged, and veteran Yoo and his friends, trying to take advantage of transition, went away with the injured and sought a way to return to Seoul.
When they returned to Seoul, they ran into an armed South Korean army. They tried to explain their situation about how they had somehow ended up being swept up in the North Korean People’s Army although they were loyal to South Korea, the South Korean military was stern about the definition of being on the side of South Korea: If you have pointed a gun at a nation’s soldier, then you are to be treated like a communist soldier. A traitor. And the next thing veteran Yoo knew, he was a prisoner of war.
The next day, the US army in their large, military trucks and took the prisoners and went to the Ahn dong prison camp. There were so many prisoners that multiple trucks were in a line, ready to carry them away. Among them were communist soldiers from North Korea, but also unfortunate soldiers like veteran Yoo who were forced into the North Korean People’s Army even though they were actually from the South. He was flabbergasted, absolutely stunned, at how the circumstances turned out for people like him. “The reality was hard to accept.”
The prison camp was a large field surrounded by barbed-wire fences and constant surveillance from the American military police. There were also tents set up within the field. When they arrived, the prisoners were given a uniform that had the letters “P.W.” stamped on it, and then they were each assigned a card with a number on it for identification. Just like any other criminal, they had to take mug shots, frontal, and profile. The military police also scanned the fingerprints of all five of their fingers and from then on, veteran Yoo got the sense that his freedom was truly being taken away.
“I would no longer be treated as a being that had opinion or preference. I was simply a criminal who had to follow the rules and regulations. That is all I was.”

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Geojedo prison camp      – National Archive of Korea-

There were around 50 people per tent. Everyone was given two sheets of blanket, a raincoat, and eating utensils provided by the US military.
“But when we lay down that thin piece of blanket on the ground as bedding on the muddy ground, the humidity was too much. My body always felt heavy, and the food was terrible, too. The food came in a flimsy tray, and the quality was horrid, and the amount was so that we were always hungry. When spring came, we were moved to the Geoje Island prison camp.
At the camp, there were some tents devoted to treating patients, so it was used like a medical facility. Some prisoners who had medical knowledge were chosen to work as doctors, but those were the lucky few. Most of the prisoners got up early in the morning and until the sundown, were subject to intense labor.
Rain or blizzard, the prisoners barely spent time in their tents and were forced to carry out their tasks of carting rocks. Rocks of all sizes were carted out and sent to a disintegration machine to be crushed and fragmentized. The gravel was then placed into vehicles and transported to various areas of Geoje Island to be used for construction. This work lasted all week, and sometimes, also on weekends.
“The military policemen who kept watch as we worked were usually African American soldiers. When we did something that they didn’t like, they lashed out with their whips and shouted, ‘Hurry, hurry.’”
There was little time for emotional mourning or self-pity when baser emotions clouded their minds. They were always hungry and thirsty, so the prisoners took turns going in pairs to the nearby stream to bring back a large pail of water. There was a water tank near this faraway stream, but when they brought the water back for the rest of the prisoners to drink with their meals, the prisoners quickly found out the water was poisoned with some type of chemical disinfectant. Many suffered stomach aches.
Sometimes, when the prisoners were allowed out of the camp perimeter for external labor, they came across refugees. These refugees must have known that the prisoners had no money, no less their own possessions, but several of them tried to profit off of them by selling items.
Many prisoners who were constantly starving could not shut out the temptation, and they began to trade their meager items for food. It began with military boots. The barter system grew, and the guard officers attempted to control the emerging “market,” but it began to infiltrate the prison camp, and with the participation of some members of the management level, there were many military foods, clothes, and boots that were leaving the parameters.
For example, some prison soldiers would stuff their water pails with blankets or clothes and take them out during external labor shifts and trade them for dried squid or Korean taffy. They hid them in the clothes they were wearing and came back to share the goods with their friends. That night, they would share a blanket together, since one of them had to sell his.
Luckily, their blanket supply was periodically replenished, so they were not perpetually out of warmth or clothing. But these trades revealed just how starving and overworked they were.
They would do anything to get their hands on more food, or something more edible, or something that would suit their appetite because prison food was no treat.
There was “education time” for prisoners, but it was not a teacher-student lecture system in a traditional classroom. Instead, the guards came by and distributed books and magazines to each tent, which contained text about the paradox of socialism and communism.
With exposure to propaganda of ideologies, it was not long before debates began to break out in tents, debates that turned into brawls. The divide between communists and anti-communists deepened as time went on. Some mornings, anti-communists would stand outside the tents and sing the national anthem. Then the communists would come out and begin to sing and chant their own anthems. The competitive spirit would sometimes cause bloodshed in the prison camp.
In June of 1952, the prison camp was buzzing with news – the prisoners had the opportunity to repatriate to the north. Examiners set up tents in the camp, and the prisoners stood in a single file line. When it was their turn, the prisoner could simply decide to stay either in the south or go north. And without another word, the examiner would mark their decision and they would be allowed into one of the two tents (south or north) of their choice.

1953년 10월 11일 북한측 포로가 자기의사를 확실하게 밝히면서 북으로 송환
The prisoner could simply decide to stay either in the south or go north      -National Archives of Korea-

When it was veteran Yoo’s turn, he explained, “I don’t know what disadvantages I will have living in the south now that there is record that I was once a traitor. But I am going to follow my true intention and desire, which is that I want to return to Seoul and study.”
Two to three days after the examination and permission, veteran Yoo got on the US Landing Ship, Tank (LST) and headed out. He had to pass through the port of Busan and go to the Yeongcheon prison camp first. At Yeongcheon, he changed out of his P.W. uniform and received new clothes. He was full of hopes that he would finally be granted status as a South Korean and be allowed to pursue his studies.
At Yeoncheon, he had to go through another examination gate, and those who wanted to go to Seoul stood on one side and were sent to Suwon in Gyeonggi Province. He arrived safely to Suwon, and at Suwon, there were throngs of people waiting to greet people like him, who were coming up north after being detained in the south. Veteran Yoo could not help but cry in joy at the welcome.
For the first time in a long time, veteran Yoo was able to taste sticky rice again and received an official identification card. Afraid there would be a mishap, he made sure multiple times that with this new ID, he could travel anywhere in Korea without any bureaucratic hassle. He also received a month’s worth of Annam rice (21kg) and canned foods. After receiving his rations, he went to the refugee center to meet his younger sister and the Mapo Office where his father worked to start a new life. But in less than a month, he received a notice that turned his life around yet again.
The war was at its height, and more draft notices were sent to households with young men. Just when veteran Yoo thought that the worst was over, and the war would come to an end, he was to be thrown back into the chaos. He believed that he was let out of the prison camp because the war was nearing its end, but now he wondered if he was freed so that he could be used as a soldier.
Veteran Yoo received two weeks of training and was dispatched to his station, which was the trench life. It was at the front line, counter-posed right across from the enemy. Every day was back to being a battle for life.

자동차가 서울로 들어오기 전 통행증을 체크하는 헌병 1951.06.18
               Soldiers checking Safe Conduct Passes       -National Archives of Korea-

On June 9, 1953 veteran Yoo and a several platoon members were on ambush duty when the Chinese communist army launched a major offense, and the South Korean trench collapsed.
Many people were killed under the pressure, but veteran Yoo’s lower half was buried in the debris and he could not move it. The upper half of his body was sticking out of the trench, and his face was covered in the dust and debris. Sand and dirt entered his eyes, and he was in pain and could not see.
After the initial shock and dizziness, he began to look around and shout for his fellow soldiers. Receiving no reply, he began to wonder if everyone else had died, or if everyone else was safe, and he himself was buried in the ground. Stuck there in the silence, veteran Yoo said that he believed he would die there this way, either from losing circulation or from starvation and thirst. Unable to move, he began to doze off in thoughts of death when out of nowhere, he heard voices in Chinese.
The Chinese communist soldiers discovered him and began digging around his body to uproot him. Then they said somethings to each other and carried him on their backs to a place that looked like a sentry post. Veteran Yoo recalled not being able to feel his legs and in between moments of consciousness, wondering if he was going to lose his legs this way.
When he arrived, a female nurse began to massage his legs, wiped his eyes, and treated his wounds. His legs began to come back to life, and he felt a wave of relief wash over him. Veteran Yoo was provided an interpreter to whom he asked questions about where he was, what was happening, and what was going to happen to him. But what he feared was inevitable and unavoidable – He was to become a prisoner of the Chinese communist army.
Veteran Yoo tried to look at the bright side – At least I am alive. If it weren’t for them, I would still be buried like a turnip, bracing for a slow death. Although being a war prisoner is shameful and pitiful, just like how dying and living are ultimately not up to us in times of war, perhaps being a prisoner is also just another turn of fate.
A few days later, he was transported to a place near the Yellow Sea where there was a clinic located for prisoners, nurses, and medics. A ward for the injured as run by two to three Chinese nurses.
Something that veteran Yoo cannot forget is the time the ward was under attack by a plane dropping bombs overhead. The moment this attack broke out, the female nurses began to carry the patients on their backs and carry them out of the room. In that moment of unspeakable danger – gun shots flying everywhere, debris and sharp fragments breaking through windows, things catching fire – without hesitation, they bravely carried the patients out of the ward. Their devotion to their jobs that appeared to transcend just some mere occupation evoked feelings of admiration and awe in veteran Yoo. These were prisoners from the enemy’s side, but friend or foe, they placed the value of human life over everything. This went without recognition or ostentatious honor, but veteran Yoo remembered thinking about how amazing their service was to humanity.
Veteran Yoo received a total of three weeks of treatment for his injury from the trench. “The foo they gave us at the ward included Chinese marinated rice, but the rice was not starchy at all, which caused its texture to be like sand. But we were not given this food because we were prisoners because I noticed that the Chinese soldiers were eating the same food as us. We lived and rested with them.”
On Sunday, they gave out food made of flour as a treat. It was unlimited, and everyone, including the prisoners, could feast on the food made of flour. “Later, I heard that the Chinese wanted to feed and treat the prisoners from South Korea well so that they could eventually use us as a soldier for their side. I wondered if that was why they allowed us to live and eat as they did.”
Once his treatment was complete, veteran Yoo was sent to the prisoner collecting point at Pyungannam Province. Many prisoners were located there, under strict control and poor treatment. This place was much larger than the small ward that he had stayed at, and the prisoners here were not treated as well. Sometimes their food and clothing did not arrive on time, and they were the last people to be given the rations and supplies. Around this time, the Chinese communist army was carrying out full-scale offensive, and there were many prisoners from all sides – China, North Korea, and South Korea.
Veteran Yoo spent many nights there, among the prisoners of war, until one day, he looked up into the night sky and saw in the direction of Pyongyang, many fire sparks in the air, as though they were fireworks. When he asked a North Korean officer what was happening, he said that the soldiers were doing an artillery salute for the ceasefire. In veteran Yoo’s eyes, it appeared celebratory.
Because veteran Yoo had already experienced life in prison camp, he immediately looked forward to participating in the barter system. He looked forward to the exchange business to occur, but his intuition advised him against it. The atmosphere at this new place was different, more ominous. It seemed that although the guards were not outwardly threatening punishment if the prisoners were to partake in illegal trades, they intensified the regulations and tightened the security around the area.
One day, they made the prisoners stand in single file lines and organized a march. The prisoners were sent to a large, old public building where areas were designated for sleeping and cooking. This was to be their new home. And the very next day, they were given so-called “political education,” which they received for two months.
But just when they had settled down, thinking they were going to receive education here, eat, sleep, and cook here, they were relocated again. This time, they took a train to Chulsan in North Pyongyang Province,where they were told to mine for a mineral called “monaz” used for the construction of special steel. In the days of World War II, North Korea also mined for “monaz” to use for nuclear weapons. Our “political education” continued, but the education and training were adjusted to just one to two hours a day on the days we had to spend most of our energy laboring in the mines. Many days passed by in this repetitive manner until October of 1954 when they received a new order.
They took another train to the deepest gorge and valley of Hakyungnamdo where they went to North Korea’s famous strip mine site called Yongyang. There, the prisoners were given ranks again and divided into squad, platoon, and battalion. Under the Department of Interior, our entire squad was called the 1706 Division. The term “prisoner” was gone and replaced by “liberated soldier” or “liberated warrior.” The language granted them new identities and new lives.
“Although a different life from that of a prisoner, my new life was only different, not better. From the Yongyang mine we went to Gimdukgwang mountain where we were given strenuous labor daily. We had to carry straw bags filled with mineral concentrate that weighed around 70 to 80 kilograms on our backs and move them to vehicles.”
From one prison to another, one type of prisoner to another, veteran Yoo was subject to a “new” life but one that consisted of difficult, if not more physically strenuous labor in the mines. His body was just the means of getting the minerals. If he died on the fields, that would be it. No one would know. In the middle of nowhere, there was no chance of thinking of escape.
“After a day’s worth of work, my entire body ached so severely. There were not many young men there. But the demand was high for the minerals and materials for construction, and we were worked to the bone with very little wages.”
The ideological education was essential and never left out of the day’s schedule. The North Koreans always taught that education and labor went hand in hand. If one was educated well enough in ideology, then one would make a good worker. They employed a somewhat meritocratic system, rewarding those who worked hard by awarding them certificates from the Secretary for the Department of Interior. And for those who were deemed to be “bad laborers,” they were punished and given harsh criticism.
Those who were deemed as not working hard enough were also publicly shamed, so they were made an example of. The North Korean officials and guards encouraged the harsh criticism from the crowd and others, causing a mob mentality of the worst kind. Those who experienced such public shame later recounted that the whole event was more psychologically damaging than receiving physical punishment.
When I asked veteran Yoo why he did not retaliate or why they were not given the option for repatriation or freedom or death or anything else besides being subjected to heavy labor? Veteran Yoo replied, “Yes, you are right. They did not give us any options. Of course I did not want to obey them, but there was no choice. From authority to authority, I had no choice but yield and submit.”
In veteran Yoo’s opinion, he believed that the reason why North Korea intentionally captured South Korean war prisoners and brought them was because first, they wanted to use them for the workforce to rebuild North Korea after the war, and second, they had unification under their regime in mind after the war and wanted to begin the brainwashing process with ideology education and propaganda. But that was not the end. Then they wanted to use the converted South Koreans to guide them down south and show them areas that were unfamiliar to them.
As time passed, the demand for more labor grew and with a shortage of men, the laborers at the mine were given the proposition to join the labor force of North Korea – not just as war prisoners pretending to be repatriated miners, but actually entering North Korean society as construction workers. If they could chant the slogans and make themselves loyal and valuable members to the Labor Party, they would be given the honor of working for the Party as a recognized member – was the propaganda.
After three to four years, near end of 1956, the Department of Interior and the Labor Party were going to come to a cabinet decision to release around 80,000 men and launch them into construction work by lending them money in the beginning.
During this time, veteran Yoo was enrolled in Kyungsung Kwangsan Technical School. During the day, he worked in mineral construction and at night, he acquired further technical skills. In three years and six months, he received his technical qualification certificate. And so he lived, earning his degrees, rising in the ranks of the construction workers, spending his time in North Korea.
In regards to his family, his father and sister were in the south and his mother in the north with four of his siblings. In 1957, he had worked hard enough to earn temporary leave. He went in search of his mother and went in the general direction of where they used to live. What he discovered there came as an absolute shock – His mother and younger siblings were living in a home in an underground tunnel. The smell of mold and soil and filled the dark, humid place. They were using a straw bag on the ground as a place to lie down, which made him think to himself, It’s been five years since the ceasefire. How could a place like this still exist?
He recalled his political education classes and how the North Korean leaders had emphasized the importance of food, clothing, shelter, and labor of the people. “I had believed, all the while that I was working, that at least in these essential regards, the Party would take care of the People.” Feeling betrayed and filled with sorrow, he burst into tears.
Veteran Yoo worked in party leadership until 1990. He wondered if his position and rank would have negative effect on his children. At a certain point, he even desired to become a Laborite and join an official party member so that he could secure himself and his family a future. But this option was not possible for him, and he hit a glass ceiling because his birthplace was under scrutiny. In North Korea, your birthplace was an important criterion for people to judge your political disposition.
Because his birthplace was in South Korea, he did not have the opportunity to rise any higher in ranks.
After retirement, he received 56 Won and 600 grams of food. But this ration was nominal and depended on North Korea’s supply at the time. The civilians were at the mercy of the nation’s food supply, and commoners were at the bottom of the food chain.
One of the reasons of this was because the price of North Korea’s daily necessities – including fresh produce – was determined by the government and distributed by the government. But the government was detached from the actual lives of the people, and the price did not reflect what they could actually afford.
For example, 1kg of white rice was 8 “jeon,” but the black market sold it for 80jeon, which was 100 times its original price. Unless you knew someone who worked in the distribution center or had ties with a government official, you most likely could not purchase anything with your measly wage of 56 won per month. It was enough to buy a pair of sneakers – only if you could afford to forego the 1kg of rice. So most people bartered and traded or purchased from the black market.
Veteran Yoo lived his days in this way, always trying to save money, get by day to day, when one day, his daughter’s friend came to visit him and told him that she knew his story of living in South Korea before the war broke out and that he ended up as a prisoner of war. Then she asked him if he had any will to leave.
For veteran Yoo who had spent half of his life in secrecy, in case his children might suffer negative consequences, was alarmed at his daughter’s friend’s offer. “I was afraid at first, of course. But after truly considering the plan, I decided that it would be worth it to defect even despite the probability of death.”
His daughter’s friend was a peddler along the border between China and North Korea, and she helped him cross the Tumen River and guide him into China.
His younger sister who awaited his arrival, met up with him in China, and they both took a plane to South Korea. “I held my breath all the way from my home in North Korea until I was in my plane seat and until the plane actually departed. I thought that at any second, I would be caught and deported.”
Veteran Yoo recalled, “When the plane finally took off, my sister said to me, ‘Brother, you can relax now.’ And it was only then that my heart felt light for the first time in a very long time.”
Veteran Yoo’s happy ending truly came to him like a small, humbling miracle. Before my interview with veteran Yoo, I had already been thinking on my own about the effects of war on the North Korean civilians and children, but I had never had the chance to talk to someone who had actually spent a large part of his life there – as a prisoner, a laborer, a tolerated member of their society. I learned for the first time that both South Korea and the UN put the prisoners of war to labor. I also had heard, but had not realized, just how tough the conditions at these prison camps were.
Everything I could easily take for granted – studying at school, being provided for by my family, being there for my parents, even basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing – was placed under a new lens as I listened to veteran Yoo’s story. The fact that such basic and simple desires could not be fulfilled for the millions of people living under the North Korean dictatorship pained me and inspired me to think deeply about how we could possibly help them.
Today, there are people who may not necessarily oppose reunification, but they do become hesitant at the thought of reuniting two very different communities. While South Korea has developed into a very pioneering, technologically advanced country with high democratic ideals, North Korea is still stuck 70 years in the past – Even if we are to reunite, how can we understand them and how can they understand us? These people also view the process of reunification as requiring much sacrifice on the part of South Koreans.
But after listening to veteran Yoo’s story, I began to think – Understanding the circumstances of the North Korean people did not require high, abstract ideals and political solutions. We only had to look at our daily lives and imagine a life stripped of such commodities and comforts. While it was easy for us to get wrapped up in our own lives, there was still a corner of the world where a group of people were silenced and crying for our help. And listening to the stories of the veterans from that time period, could give us a loud echo of their voices.

 

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