Former prisoners recall camp lifeThe JoongAng Daily begins today a four-part series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. Today’s article looks at the experiences of anti-Communist soldiers in the North Korean Army who were held prisoner on Geoje Island, detailing their life in the camp and their later efforts to integrate into South Korean society.
Subsequent articles in the series, which runs through Saturday, will describe the experiences and memories of war veterans, provide a close-up look at the Demilitarized Zone, and focus on the shifting attitudes of South Koreans toward the North, particularly noting the differences in views between the younger and older generations.
Order of Series
1. North Korean Army prisoners on Geoje Island
2. Remembrances of war veterans
3. A look at the DMZ
4. Shifting attitudes among South Koreans
As the clock struck midnight on June 18, 1953, Son Ku-won escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp on Geoje Island, in the South Sea. As a prisoner from the North Korean People’s Liberation Army during the Korean War, the 18-year-old Mr. Son had spent more than a year in the camp. Having seen more blood there than on the battlefield, Mr. Son was elated to get out of the desolate cement compound.
Five decades have passed, but in his dreams Mr. Son can still touch the coarse walls of the camp. The ability to feel has not faded with the passage of time, he says. Whenever he wakes up from such a dream, he is soaked in sweat, relieved to see the white wallpaper of his home in Seoul.
Mr. Son was not supposed to be freed before treaties governing prisoner exchanges were agreed upon. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s president, carried out a daring plan to free anti-Communist prisoners without the agreement of the United Nations forces in charge of the camp. The allies were setting up a plan to bring a halt to the war by armistice, which infuriated Mr. Rhee, who had vowed to “press on to the North.” Freeing more than 27,300 anti-Communist North Korean prisoners was his way of expressing his disapproval. Mr. Rhee secretly sent Korean troops to hold back the American guards on their watchtowers and opened the gate for the prisoners.
Mr. Son, included in the list, did not care about the politics. He just was happy to bid farewell to the gray compound. He even sheared his own palm to write a pledge in blood that he wanted to remain in the South. Running out of the compound that night, he felt, for the first time since the war, that he was lucky to have survived.
Mr. Son was wandering around the southern part of the peninsula when he heard that an armistice had been signed on July 27, 1953. The camp’s remaining inmates were legally released the following January and the camp was closed.
The news hit him hard. If he had waited, he could have walked out of the compound with a generous compensation, reportedly $10,000, as a reward for working there. Mr. Son was instead penniless and alone, wearing rugged hemp-cloth pants given him by a well-meaning villager. Seeing him walking, almost crawling, in a village in South Jeolla province, Mr. Son heard a local child yell at him, “Hey, I didn’t know a POW is even a human being.”
Mr. Son was still legally documented as a North Korean soldier in the South. He had virtually no way of making a living except for one option ― joining the South Korean army. Given a job in the riot police, Mr. Son’s main responsibility was “mopping up Commies” who were launching guerrilla actions on Mount Jiri. “A whim of life, you may call it,” Mr. Son says. He was viewed as the enemy by both North and South Koreas, when all he wanted was to be a member of both.
At least life as a South Korean riot policeman was better than what he went through in the prison camp. “I was more like a beast than a human being in that compound. I went on living only because I could not die without treading on my home soil,” he says.
The campsite, now the top tourist attraction on the island, exhibits photos of the prisoners enjoying a near-feast to show that they were treated fairly well, in line with the Geneva conventions.
Starting their daily routine at 5:30 a.m., the 170,000 prisoners were mobilized for manual labor from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by three hours of free time and bedtime at 8 p.m. Park Tai-moon, a Geoje city government official who has researched the history of the POW camp, has written that “POWs were treated fairly well, with healthy food and a lot of free time.” But Mr. Son and two fellow POWs, Kim Eun-sik, 71, and Lee Jin-sam, 75, firmly deny this.
“It cannot be further from the truth. Just a handful of cheap rice, called annam-mi, from Vietnam, was our daily staple food. I could see the grains, too dry and light, flying away with a stream of breath,” Mr. Son says. Mr. Kim voices accord, saying, “They fed us so scant an amount of food, just enough to barely keep our bodies and souls together. We were nothing but animals in their eyes.”
Mr. Kim tells a story about a POW who used to say his only wish was to eat to his heart’s content. One day, Mr. Kim found the fellow lying on the ground, unconscious ― he had stolen the bucket of cooked rice, devoured every single grain and died of suffocation.
Death was not a rarity in the compound, Mr. Son says. In the barracks, clashes between anti-Communists and pro-Communists took place, often causing casualties, which totaled more than 300 by the end of the war. Mr. Lee, who escaped from the pro-Communist dominated compound, says, “I saw card-carrying pro-Communist POWs ripping anti-Communist ones to death. Then they threw out the bodies either in lavatories or onto the Okpo beach on the South Sea so as not to be discovered by the American guards.” Mr. Kim adds that “The island’s residents thought the fish caught at the Okpo beach tasted extraordinarily good, only to find a pile of human bones later.”
Mr. Lee still vividly remembers the North Korean flag hanging on the rooftop of a compound, its red-colored part strangely stiff, having been soaked in the blood of the pro-Communist POWs. Mr. Lee says he also witnessed kangaroo courts held by the pro-Communists. “Watching all that inhumanity and absurdity, I naturally became repelled by Communism and decided to remain in the South,” Mr. Lee says.
Confined by four layers of barbed wire, Mr. Lee says he was always accompanied by two American military policemen whenever he went out of the appointed compound. As POWs, anti-Communists felt all the more insecure, fearing they might be sent back to the North, which spurred the founding of the Anti-Communist Young Man Party in 1951. The group still exists, having recently changed its name to the Association for Reunification Security, which Mr. Son now heads. Mr. Son says, “With the Sunshine Policy, we decided to change the name.” The office is in Jangchung-dong, central Seoul.
Mr. Son looks back upon the few years prior to the Korean War as the best time of his life. The northern part of Korea after liberation from Japanese colonial rule was even wealthier than the South. “I even had my own soccer shoes back then, which was impossible in the contemporary South. Mom looked happy in the kitchen, with more than enough food to feed her children. Kim Il-sung was paving the way to build his Communist kingdom, taking away the land of the ‘haves’ and equalizing it to all the residents. It was paradise for the ‘have-nots,’” Mr. Son says with a hint of a smile.
As May, 1950 approached, however, Mr. Son could not get to sleep at night because of the sputtering sound of moving tanks. “I first took it for a military field operation at night. But I was completely wrong. They were mobilizing and stationing the troops closer to the 38th parallel, to get ready for the war,” Mr. Son says.
Then a student at a vocational school, Mr. Son left Pyeongyang with his family. It took only three days for the North Korean troops to take over Seoul and Mr. Son remembers hearing that “We have to liberate Daegu and Busan, too.” Excited, Mr. Son joined the army as a student soldier. “My morale soared to the sky back then,” Mr. Son says. “I firmly believed that we were the saviors of the South.”
While marching to Daegu, however, Mr. Son’s division was stopped and sent back north. Mr. Son by then missed his home so much that he decided to flee from the army with a few close friends. Moving at night, Mr. Son after three days made it to Chungcheong province in the center of South Korea. Exhausted, he roamed about the empty houses searching for food, when he spotted a huge rice storage container underground. Mr. Son did not know that such luck would soon bring misfortune, and he ate his fill, feeling an irresistible sense of fatigue afterward. Creeping down under a nearby bunker, he and the others slept for more than three days. When Mr. Son opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sparkling eyes of American soldiers with their rifles aimed directly at him. Thus Mr. Son became a prisoner of war on Geoje Island.
Asked if the three are happy to be South Korean citizens, it takes a few seconds for them to answer. “No,” Mr. Son says, “I often regret that I decided to remain in the South. If I went back to my hometown, I would have been a hero. Look at what I am now. I’m just nobody. It makes my whole life so meaningless.”
Mr. Son tried to get a job at a company, but the effort was in vain since he was on a government blacklist, branded as a former North Korean soldier. Mr. Kim applied for a mining job in Germany, only to be rejected because of his former identity. Mr. Lee gave up the dream of getting a decent job at a company and instead started a small business of his own, a path also followed by Mr. Son and Mr. Kim. Life was hard, with their former identities as North Korean POWs haunting them everywhere they went. “Of course I’m grateful that I survived after all,” Mr. Kim says, “but what good was it that I am like a hollow creature who just happens to be breathing?”
Do they miss their hometowns in the North? Not really, they say. “I used to soak my pillow wet every night, being homesick. After all these years, however, I got so accustomed to this sorrow that I cannot even feel it. Will I be able to recognize my youngest sister, who was a 3-year-old the last time I saw her? I doubt it,” Mr. Kim says, almost whispering.
Mr. Son, while not proud of his past, has openly begun to demand his rights from the government. Earlier this year he and the other group members asked for treatment as “men of honor.” The government, however, denied their request for compensation and other benefits accorded to South Korean veterans. This infuriated the group. “We are gathering all our strength to show them something this October. In this capitalist society, it takes money to have a demonstration,” Mr. Son says, “but whatever it takes, we’ll do what we should do. If things don’t change, we are even determined to smash down the POW camp tourist site on Geoje Island.
“We fought at the cost of our lives for our anti-Communist beliefs. What did we get by fighting for the South and deserting the North? Nothing. I lost everything, even my own self.”
Tips for visiting Geoje POW camp
GEOJE ISLAND, South Gyeongsang
The Geoje POW camp was established in November, 1950 by UN forces, and held about 150,000 North Korean and 20,000 Chinese prisoners by the end of the war in 1953. Jeju Island had been the first choice, but it was rejected by UN headquarters partly because a pro-Communist group lived there. Geoje, on the southeastern edge of the peninsula, then came to be seen as the most appropriate spot.
The camp memorial site, in the center of the island, was visited by a group of veterans on June 25, the anniversary of the day the Korean War broke out in 1950. Marching songs blared from speakers at the vast site, which is divided into 13 compounds on an area of nearly 15 square kilometers (9 square miles). Park Young-su, now 79, a veteran who served in the South Korean Army’s 15th Division during the war, hummed the tunes.
A visitor first proceeds by escalator through a tunnel, which has exhibits related to the outbreak of the war. Other exhibits at the individual compounds illustrate life in the camp through miniature models and photographs. Son Ku-won, a camp survivor, insists that the exhibited items, such as a large container for cooked rice, were not used by most of the POWs. But the display does include a fine collection, including photographs of pro-Communist POWs rioting and taking custody of Brigadier General Francis T. Dodd. Without a proper English guide, however, the effort falters. Familiarizing oneself with the history of the Korean War is strongly recommended before making a trip to the camp.
It takes about an hour for an adequate tour of the site. Tickets cost 3,000 won ($2.50) for adults. The site opens at 9 a.m., closing at 6 p.m. from March to October and 5 p.m. from November to February. To reach Geoje Island, take an express bus at the Nambu Bus Terminal in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. The one-way fare for the ride, which takes about 5 1/2 hours, is about 26,000 won. One can also take the first-class Saemaeul train to Busan, a 4 1/2-hour trip, then take a one-hour ferry ride to the island. The one-way train fare is about 25,000 won, while the ferry costs about 15,000 won. For more information, call (055) 633-0625 or visit the Web site at www.geoje.go.kr (English available).
by Chun Su-jin