Re­trac­ing war past, N. Korean ex-POWs re­turn to South


Back in the coun­try where they were de­tained as pris­on­ers of war in the 1950s, two for­mer North Korean sol­diers now find lit­tle ap­par­ent ob­jec­tion or hos­til­ity, at least su­per­fi­cially — they were even wel­comed by vet­er­ans who had fought for the South. But it’s also a trip that brings back bit­ter mem­o­ries of war and puts them on the de­fen­sive again.

They are among the 76 North Korean P. O. W. s held in South Korea who opted to re­set­tle abroad at the end of the 1950- 53 Korean War. La­beled traitors, op­por­tunists or fence- sit­ters amid fierce Cold War ri­valry be­tween the Koreas, they’ve died abroad one by one and now less than a dozen are still be­lieved to be alive.

Kim Myeong Bok and Kang Hi­dong came back to South Korea on July 23 with a South Korean movie di­rec­tor who’s mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary on ex- P. O. W. s.

The f i l m, t i t l ed “Re­turn Home,” is in­tended to trace back their tur­bu­lent lives, but the men may not be able to make one im­por­tant stop. Py­ongyang has not given them per­mis­sion to en­ter North Korea.

Kim, who is 79 and lives in Brazil, is des­per­ate to re­turn be­cause he thinks this is his last chance.

“I left my home when I was young and I don’t know whether my fam­ily is still alive or not. What I’ve been wish­ing is vis­it­ing my home­town be­fore I die,” Kim told re­porters in a tear­ful news con­fer­ence in Seoul late last month. “My fa­ther and mother must have passed away ... I still want to see even their ashes.”

Kang, 86 and liv­ing in San Fran­cisco, doesn’t want to go back to the North for a rea­son that he re­fused to spec­ify.

A frag­ile ar­mistice that ended the Korean War has yet to be re­placed with a peace treaty, thus leav­ing the penin­sula at a tech­ni­cal state of war and split along the world’s most heav­ily for­ti­fied bor­der.

For Kim, the main char­ac­ter in the doc­u­men­tary, it’s his first visit to South Korea since he left here in 1954, be­fore re­set­tling as a farmer in the re­mote Brazil­ian city of Cuiaba in the western state of Mato Grosso. Kang, a re­tired pas­tor, has pre­vi­ously vis­ited South Korea a few times.

In South Korea, they are try­ing to re­con­struct their fad­ing mem­o­ries about the war. They’ve vis­ited the sites of their P.O.W. camps, which have changed to busy down­town streets or va­cant lots; war mu­se­ums; a char­nel house where the ashes of a fel­low ex-P.O.W. are stored; and a town where Kim be­came a pris­oner of war. They’ve also met peo­ple who share their pain, in­clud­ing the widow of another pris­oner and a P. O. W.- turned- Bud­dhist monk who had cho­sen to stay on in the South af­ter the war.

At a Seoul war mu­seum, Kim watched vividly re-en­acted Korean War scenes in an au­dio­vi­sual room, and walked out of the place in tears. He took tra­di­tional anx­i­olytic pills when he vis­ited a south­ern is­land where he was im­pris­oned and said his “heart was aching” dur­ing a visit to a P.O.W. mu­seum there, ac­cord­ing to Cho Kyeong-duk, the movie di­rec­tor trav­el­ing with Kim and Kang.

They also vis­ited Yang­pyeong, a small farm­ing town near Seoul, where Kim sur­ren­dered to South Korea’s army only weeks af­ter he was con­scripted into the North’s Korean Peo­ple’s Army in 1950. There, Kim found ev­ery­thing has to­tally changed.

“I can­not find a place where I be­came a P. O. W. I only re­mem­ber it was a moun­tain val­ley,” he said.

In Yang­pyeong, he and Kang met sev­eral oc­to­ge­nar­ian South Korean vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing one who was still limp­ing slightly due to gun­shot wounds from the war. The vet­er­ans ini­tially re­fused to meet with their for­mer en­e­mies, but changed their minds fol­low­ing Cho’s re­peated re­quests.

Kim and Kang waited in the cor­ri­dor of a vet­er­ans’ hall for about 15 min­utes while Cho first talked to the South Kore­ans. The di­rec­tor de­scribed the meet­ing that fol­lowed as un­ex­pect­edly am­i­ca­ble. The for­mer North Kore­ans said they had suf­fered re­li­gious op­pres­sion in their home­land and that they were forced into the army against their will. The South Korean vet­er­ans tried to help Kim find a place where he sur­ren­dered, though at the end he couldn’t re­mem­ber it.

They later ate to­gether cold noo­dles at a res­tau­rant and vis­ited a lo­cal war mu­seum be­fore ex­chang­ing warm farewell hand­shakes.

“I had ear­lier won­dered how I could em­brace you as the ( North) Korean Peo­ple’s Army was my en­emy. But on sec­ond thought, I re­al­ized I don’t have to think about some­thing like this now be­cause ... ( we) are the same na­tion,” said Lee Kyu- hwan, an 83- year- old South Korean vet­eran.

‘Meet­ing an old friend’

“It was like meet­ing ( old) friends ... I don’t have any par­tic­u­lar feel­ing that they were the en­e­mies at all,” Kim said af­ter part­ing with the South Kore­ans.

De­spite the os­ten­si­bly nice at­mos­phere, Cho be­lieved he had felt there was still some emo­tional bag­gage be­tween ag­ing for­mer ri­vals. Cho said he spent sev­eral days per­suad­ing the South Ko- rean vet­er­ans into meet­ing with Kim and Kang and that the ex- P. O. W. s had also wor­ried much about meet­ing with them.

Most of the ex- North Korean P. O. W. s who left the penin­sula re­set­tled in Brazil, Ar­gentina and In­dia, though some 10 of them vol­un­tar­ily re­turned to ei­ther North or South Korea. Kang, who first re­set­tled in Brazil, later moved to the United States. Their ranks in­clude a med­i­cal pro­fes­sor, a quarry owner and pas­tors, but oth­ers strug­gled to make a liv­ing. Some suf­fered from men­tal ill­ness.

Many chose not to stay in the South be­cause they wor­ried about liv­ing with the la­bel of ex­com­mu­nist sol­diers in a place where they had no rel­a­tives and friends. And they feared pun­ish­ment in the North for be­ing cap­tured in the South.

Kang wor­ries about safety of any liv­ing rel­a­tives left be­hind in the North. In a May in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press, he asked to be iden­ti­fied only by his ini­tials, but later agreed to have his full name pub­lished.

Kang’s Brazil­ian wife of 62 years knows how much her hus­band missed his fam­ily dur­ing his early days in Brazil, where she met him.

“He al­ways told me about the war, about his fam­ily and how he missed his fam­ily. He lost ev­ery­thing dur­ing the war. Each day I felt ... close to him,” said Maria Valerio Kang, 79, who trav­eled to South Korea with her hus­band. “I de­cided my­self I want to give ( him) ... a peace­ful place to live and I have to give him all my love then he ... could be happy for­ever.”

Kim wishes to go to the North with Cho via an in­ter- Korean bor­der route this month. He wants to re­turn to his home­town in the north­west­ern city of Ry­ong­chon to visit the grave of his par­ents and the site of his church.

But his chances ap­pear dim. Cho said he’s sep­a­rately con­tacted North and South Korean diplo­mats in Brazil, but both sides asked to come to their coun­tries only. He said he’ll keep try­ing to help Kim reach North Korea even if he fails to do so this time.

“I think whether this el­derly man can visit his home­town can be a barom­e­ter to see whether South and North Korean author­i­ties have re­solve to im­prove their ties,” Cho said.


Kim Lee-nam, left, a South Korean war vet­eran of the Korean War, speaks about photos of Chipy­ong-ri Bat­tle to Kim Myeong Bok, sec­ond from left, and Kang Hi Dong, sec­ond from right, for­mer North Korean pris­on­ers of war held in South Korea dur­ing the 1950-53 war, at Chipy­ong-ri Bat­tle Me­mo­rial Hall, in Yang­pyeong, South Korea, July 31.

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