Retracing Korean War, ex-North Korean POWs return to South Korea

Retracing Korean War, ex-North Korean POWs return to South Korea

The Associated Press

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. 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 POWs 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 fewer than a dozen are still believed to be alive.

Kim Myeong Bok and Kang Hi-dong came back to South Korea on July 23, 2015, with a South Korean movie director who’s making a documentary on ex-POWs.

The film, titled 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 in July 2015. “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 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 POW camps, which have changed to busy downtown streets or vacant lots, war museums, a charnel house where the ashes of a fellow ex-POW 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 POW-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 POW 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 POW. I only remember it was a mountain valley,” he said.

Most of the ex-North Korean POWs who left the peninsula resettled in Brazil, Argentina and India, though 10 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 ex-communist soldiers in a place where they had no relatives and friends. They also feared punishment in the North for being captured in the South. Kang worries about safety of any living relatives left behind in the North.