- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

SEOUL — In September last year, the South Korean army’s Tiger Division held an honor-guard ceremony for Sgt. Kim, officially discharging him after having listed him as killed in action for a half-century.

“I couldn’t tell whether it was a dream or not,” said Mr. Kim, 75, a slight, wrinkled man with a shy smile.

For Mr. Kim, it was a long journey home. When he escaped North Korea in 2001 after five decades of captivity, he was one of the last Korean War prisoners to return home from the communist North.

Seoul thinks at least 400 prisoners of war from the South might still be alive in the North. Their fate, like the war that ended in an armistice signed 50 years ago this July, is unresolved.

As for American servicemen who may still be in North Korea, the U.S. government has never asserted publicly that there are any, although a Pentagon analyst wrote in an internal report in 1996 that 10 to 15 “possible POWs” probably were in communist captivity.

Mr. Kim’s unit was guarding South Korea’s westernmost front line June 25, 1950, when communist invaders poured over the 38th parallel. Mr. Kim found himself “on my own, tumbling down the hills.”

By mid-October, he was among 700 POWs in an old colonial Japanese military camp at Hoeryong, a coal-mining town on North Korea’s northeastern tip.

“We only had one sheet of cloth we had on when we were caught. We fought over the few rice-straw mats thrown in,” Mr. Kim said. “We starved and were so weak we had to crawl or take one step at a time leaning against the wall to go to the restroom.”

Four months later, the POWs were moved to another camp. Mr. Kim was so frail that guards left him for dead with a heap of bodies. Farmers nursed him back to life.

After the 1953 cease-fire, 8,341 South Korean POWs and 3,748 U.S. soldiers were traded for 83,000 North Koreans and Chinese.

But North Korea refused to return thousands of other South Korean prisoners, calling them “liberated soldiers” who wanted to stay in the North. Mr. Kim thought that to ask to go home could invite punishment.

And so, he said, “I spent my next 50 years toiling at a brick kiln.”

Mr. Kim and his North Korean wife talked to a reporter on the condition that only their last names be published and the name of their town not be mentioned, fearing for the seven children they had left in the North.

When famine struck in the mid-1990s, thousands fled, including 40 POWs.

In 1995-96, 20 to 30 people died of hunger daily in Mr. Kim’s neighborhood of 20,000, and society appeared to be breaking down. Several people were publicly executed for slaughtering orphaned children for their flesh.

“A man found human carcasses hanging from the ceiling of a neighbor’s second-floor apartment,” Mr. Kim said.

Things improved around 1997 when authorities allowed farmers to cultivate their own small patches instead of relying on the collective-farm system.

In March 2001, a man came to Mr. Kim and said: “You are from the South, and I know a way to get you there.”

So-called brokers smuggle people out of North Korea, bribing border guards and getting help from human rights activists and sometimes from South Korean government intelligence agents, according to defectors. Seoul doesn’t acknowledge a role.

Mr. Kim’s brother in Seoul financed his escape. Mr. Kim received nearly $300,000 from the South Korean government in back pay and pension, and spent about $42,000 to bring his wife out of North Korea in December.

Mr. Kim and his wife want to bring an unmarried daughter to South Korea. They wish their other children could join them, but realize they have families of their own.

“My heart pounds when I think about my children and grandchildren in the North,” Mrs. Kim said.

“I can’t sleep very well,” her husband said.

After a half-century, he is still, in a sense, a prisoner of the Korean War.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide