Veteran POWs recall misery of North Korean captivity
-- Pictured giggling on a park
bench, 89-year-old Lee Soon-sang and his
wife, Kim Eun-hae, look as though they met
In fact, they married more than 60 years ago.
But for half a century, Kim believed her
husband was dead, missing in action during
the Korean War (1950-53).
Then in August 2004, a telephone call came
from China. "I thought someone was trying
to make money off me. I got many calls like
that over the years from China, but I didn't
pay attention," she said.
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This was no ordinary call. The voice on the
other end of the line shook her to the core.
It really was her husband.
"I asked, 'Are you really alive?'
He answered, 'Yes, I am alive.'
Then I asked if he knew so and
so, and he did know them.
That's how I knew it was real."
When they finally met, they
barely recognized each other.
"He was so skinny, he was
wobbling in," recalled Kim. "I
could only recognize his nose."
In contrast Lee couldn't
believe how well fed his wife
looked. "She looked like one of
those landlords from the old
days," he said. "And the
propaganda, that all South
Koreans are starving to
death ... that Americans are
taking all the rice and only
giving back rotten flour ... I
only heard this kind of
propaganda, so I thought she
"We just held each other and
Lee Soon-sang had been
captured by the North Korean army in 1953,
two days before the Armistice was signed.
He spent three-and-a-half years in a
prisoner of war camp and was then sent to
work in the notorious coalmines at Aoji,
North Korea -- also a production site for
gunpowder. There he had remarried and had
children -- though he said he never forgot
about life before the war. "Life in North
Korea was hard', he said. "So I always
thought about my hometown. Even though I
believed my wife was dead, I always thought
I'd go back one day."
Decades later, in 2004, a "broker" got in
touch -- they are middlemen who make their
living smuggling people in and out of North
Korea. "He told me that Kim Eun-hae and my
son were in China with lots of money, that I
should take the money and go back to North
Korea to live a better life."
Aged 77 by then, he had managed to save up
20,000 North Korean won (approximately US
$150) selling cigarettes. "In North Korea,
that's a lot of money. You could buy a small
house with that. I gave that to my wife and
said, 'I'm going to pick acorns, I'll be back in
two or three days.' That's how I left."
He said he meant to return. But he never
He won't talk about the family
he left behind. "I'm happy
now. You're my wife," he told
But the bitterness of his
choice is a reality for many
whose lives and loyalties were
split by a divided Korea.
Why the Korean War still
matters Lee attends a lunch organized
for prisoners of war like him --
a group of about a dozen men
who meet three times a week,
all of whom were held captive
in the North long after the
1953 Armistice agreement
when Pyongyang agreed to
return all prisoners of war.
Kim Sung Tae left his adopted daughter
behind in North Korea when he fled in 2001.
"How can we see each other unless there's
reunification?" He's 81. He does not expect
to see her again.
He described the terrible hardships of his life
in North Korea, especially the six months he
spent in a prisoner of war camp. "We were
fed just a few hundred grams of grain a
day," he recalled. "I would wake up in the
morning and grab handfuls of lice from my
body. That was normal."
For more than a decade after, his life was
spent in a succession of regular prisons,
often in solitary confinement in a cell no
larger than the size of a crouching man.
"When I came back to South Korea, I asked
them to take me to a prison here so I could
compare. It was like paradise. South Korean
prisons treated their prisoners better than
North Korea treated their citizens."
According to South Korea's Defense Ministry,
8,343 former servicemen have returned to
the South since 1953. Eighty of those men
escaped through a third country decades
after the Armistice was signed. Based on
their testimony, the Seoul government
believes there are still some 500 POWs living
in the North. Kim Sung Tae feels the
government should do more to bring them
Recently, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihi-jae
repeated his call for North Korea to resolve
the issue of former servicemen and other
abductees kept by the North. Pyongyang
claims they are there of their own free will.
And in the absence of actual talks between
the two countries, Seoul has little leverage to
orchestrate their release.
Men like Lee Soon-sang and Kim Sung Tae
are living proof that Pyongyang is wrong. But
many Korean war veterans are now well into
their eighties -- no longer at an age where
fleeing across treacherous borders is
particularly feasible. Men whose fate was
sealed when they were taken prisoner 60
years ago may never see freedom again.