Korean War still weighs on lives in South

Actors dressed as a Korean War-era soldiers hold doves to be released during ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War at the Baengmagoji War Memorial in Cheorwon, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating north and south Korea. Photo AFP
  • Agence France-Presse
  • June 25, 2020 7:49 AM
Seoul, South Korea | From a nurse who fought to the descendant of a war refugee, the Korean War still weighs heavy on lives on the peninsula, 70 years after it began.

Up to three million Koreans died in the three-year conflict, in which hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving North and South Korea technically still at war.

- The nurse - 

Park Ok-sun and her mother fled Seoul when it fell in June 1950. As a refugee, she said, "my mother would paint my face black with charcoal and deliberately mess up my hair to make me look like a beggar, to protect me from getting raped by soldiers".

The following year she volunteered for South Korean military nursing school, still only 16.

After minimal training, she was assigned to care for injured soldiers at a series of hospitals.

Some wounded were already dead by the time they arrived, and survivors waited in pain for treatment, parts of their faces or bodies blown off.

 Medical workers were always short of drugs and supplies, she said, sometimes forcing them to resort to amputations.

To this day, "it breaks my heart when I think about them," Park said.

It was very rare for women to join the army at the time, and people would look at her as if she were "an animal at a zoo," she said.

Her mother was killed during the war, and Park remained a military nurse for the rest of her career. She never married.

Now 84, Park said she was especially disheartened that the conflict was still not officially over after 70 years.

War requires participants to "kill or be killed," she said. "It should never happen."

- The refugee -

On a cold winter's day in 1950 Kim Kun-wook packed onto a wooden boat with his brother and father and fled to the South. They wanted to avoid being forced to fight for Kim Il Sung's Communist forces, with whom two of his cousins had already been killed.

Kim, then 16, left behind his mother and sisters, thinking the war would be over in two weeks. It was the last time he ever saw them.

The end of the 1950-53 conflict left the peninsula divided with all civilian communication between the two sides banned, and millions separated forever from other family members.

Kim settled in Cheongho-dong, one of the northernmost fishing ports on the South Korean coast, along with several other refugees hoping to go home.

The area became known as "Abai village", after the word for "grandfather" in the dialect of the North's Hamgyong region, where Kim and many of the others came from.

"I always thought I would return some day," he said, still speaking with a slight Northern accent. "I have lived 70 years in waiting."

Now 86 with sons and grandchildren of his own, Kim says his life in the democratic South has been good, but his heart still aches at the thought of his mother.

"Even now when I wake up in the middle of the night, I always think about what a bad son I have been to my mother.

"Family is so important, so warm. But you only realise this when you are apart."

- The descendant -

A South Korean millennial, Yi Seo-young has never been to North Korea, and does not know if she ever will. But she says she misses it anyway.

Her maternal grandfather came from Sinuiju, on the border with China.

When he and his wife fled to the South during the war, the couple left their two young sons -- one eight, and the other four -- with a grandmother, thinking the journey would be too dangerous for them and expecting to return soon.

Yi, now a 33-year-old science fiction writer, grew up with her grandparents and had a close bond with her grandfather, a doctor.

There was "everyday sadness" in his life, Yi said. He would sob quietly whenever he drank, thinking about his children left in the North, and the young Yi would cry with him.

His many applications to take part in the family reunions the North has sometimes allowed were unsuccessful.

When he died in 1997 his last wish was to be buried near the Demilitarized Zone, in the closest Southern cemetery to his hometown. But too many had already signed up for the graves. 

To this day, Yi imagines meeting her uncles in the North or their children.

"Whenever North Korea appears on TV, I know that it's now a different place, that it's changed a lot from the place that my grandfather talked about," Yi said.

"But at the same, it still is where he is from, and whenever I get reminded of that I find myself missing that place, and I get emotional."



Related Articles