In the summer of 2006, I met an old man who was feeding doves in Tapgol Park, the municipal park in Seoul, South Korea. This particular old man was notable because he was wearing a hat embroidered with a blue star, the symbol of the 6th Infantry Division of The Republic of Korea Army.
I was not in a rush, so I sat next to him and offered to listen to his story if he was willing to share. When I asked if he was a veteran of the Korean War, the man affirmed with a surprised look on his face. He answered that he had served as a rifleman during the war until he was captured by the People’s Volunteer Army of China (PVA) in April, 1951. Until his miraculous escape from North Korea, he had to endure a brutal life as a prisoner for decades. When he noticed that I was eager to hear his story, he calmly began.
In 1950, he was the eldest son of a common farmer in Kangwon Province, the eastern region of South Korea. He had an ordinary life as a farmer until the sudden invasion of North Korea in June, 1950. After ensuring his family’s safe escape to Pusan, the harbor city in the southern region of South Korea, he volunteered to serve in the army. After a brief training, he was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division.With his comrades, he fiercely fought to defend his position and had numerous near-death situations. Fortunately, the South Korean Army was able to defend the perimeter until the Battle of Inchon.
After their defeat at the Battle of Inchon, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) rapidly disintegrated. Simultaneously, the 6th Infantry Division participated as the spearhead of the counteroffensive. Of course, he also participated in many battles to drive communist forces in the Korean Peninsula back. In October 1950, the 6th Division reached the Amlok River (Yalu River), the river located in the northernmost region of North Korea.
April, 1951 was a fateful time in this soldier’s life. The 6th Infantry Division was deployed in Chuncheon, the municipality in the eastern region of South Korea, to prevent the PVA from reaching Seoul. The PVA deployed six infantry divisions to annihilate the remaining resistance. The 6th Infantry Division could not repulse the overwhelming number, so the entire division started to retreat. Unfortunately, he was left behind in the chaos of the battle because he had been wounded in the frey. After the battle, Chinese infantry found him lying on the ground and, consequently, he was transferred to the KPA.
While in captivity, he managed to take a guard’s gun and escape. Unfortunately, the injury from his previous battle slowed him down, so he was eventually caught by the KPA guards. He was brutally beaten for hours before he was thrown back in the prison camp. A few days later, he was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor as a result of his attempt to escape. After the trial, he was forced to walk all the way to North Pyeongan Province, approximately 300 miles from the prison camp. He constantly suffered from malnutrition and dehydration, but he mostly feared the unpredictable and deadly U.S. airstrikes.
When he arrived at North Pyeongan Province, he was immediately sent to the government-owned mine. He was forced to work from sunrise to sunset for 20 years. During this sentence, the guards only provided a small rice ball and salt soup as nutrition. When he had a day off, the rice ball was reduced to one third of the normal size. The only thing that kept him sane was the hope that he would one day return back to his family.
Eventually, he finished his prison term and was released from the mine. Sadly, his ordeal was not finished yet. Instead of sending him home, the North Korean government transferred him to the infamous Aoji Coal Mine in the North Hampyeong Province. Under the watchful surveillance of North Korean police, he worked another 20 years. Finally, when he reached his 60th birthday, he was freed from forced labor.
Years later, he met a Chinese paddler, who secretly extricated North Koreans to China. If the pay was good enough, the paddler could arrange an escape for anyone who wished to leave North Korea. At last, the soldier was able to escape and reunite with his family in China. He thought his tears were dry after the decades of cruel labor, but when he stepped onto Korean soil again, he could not stop crying. From that moment on, he swore to cherish every moment possible. That was the end of his story, and he thanked to me for listening. In that very moment, when he finally reached Korean soil after years of unbelievable struggle, he said he was the happiest man on earth.
Alex Cho hopes that people remember how lucky they are to be living in a peaceful time, without fear of war.