Sea skirmish leaves mental, physical scarsDAEGU
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice between North and South Korea, and while no war has broken out during that time the occasional skirmish serves as a reminder of how fragile that cease-fire is.
South Koreans typically go about their daily lives giving little thought to the prospect of a major conflict, although Seoul lies only 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the most heavily- fortified border in the world.
People like Kwon Ki-hong, however, have no need for a constant reminder of what war could bring to this land. Sitting in a cafe in Daegu, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, he slowly sips a Coke as he tries to gather his thoughts. Although Daegu is considered the hottest place in South Korea, he wears a band that covers his right arm from the wrist to the elbow.
As he carefully removes the band, a big scar extending nearly across the inside of his lower right arm becomes visible. The area, darker than the rest of his skin, was caused by a bullet wound that Mr. Kwon, 22, received at the Battle of the Yellow Sea on June 29, 2002, between South and North Korean Navy vessels.
Mr. Kwon is rarely asked about his battle experience by friends or family members, as they try not to make him recall the horrors of combat. He, too, does not talk about it but that does not mean he has forgotten.
“I don’t think I will ever forget what happened. From now on, every year around this time will be special for me,” Mr. Kwon says. Shaking his head, he adds, “Who would have thought that anything like this would happen to me.”
His remarks seem to echo the thoughts of many young Korean men who are facing their 26-month-long mandatory tour in the Korean Army.
Park Joon-sik, 21, a waiter at the cafe who is due to begin his military service this year, does not think he will ever use a weapon against the North Koreans, despite the nuclear crisis that has increased tensions on the peninsula.
“Well, I might shoot in practice. But that’s about it I guess,” he says. Mr. Kwon had exactly the same mind-set when he started his military service in March 2001.
Having finished his freshman year at the Korea National Agricultural College in Gyeonggi province, he was ready to go. Coming from a farming family with two sons and a daughter, he was the only one still subject to military service since his older brother had just completed his two-year stint.
Mr. Kwon did not want to be land-based and opted to join the navy, where one is required to serve for 28 months. He volunteered for the ship-salvaging unit, which specializes in deep- sea diving and rescuing sailors.
After the fifth week of training he received a spinal injury which made it impossible for him to continue training for the unit. He was then transferred to the navy’s 2d Fleet, where he trained as a sailor manning the deck of a ship. In September of that year he was ready for assignment to a ship and was ordered to the Chamsuriho, a patrol boat manned by 28 people, including officers.
Mr. Kwon remembers a pre-boarding interview with an officer named Lee Hui-wan, who later became the vessel’s sole surviving lieutenant commander ― the equivalent of a company-grade officer in the army.
“He told me that anyone who served there had to be ready for combat at any given moment. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I just thought I was going to sail around in a ship,” Mr. Kwon says.
To his surprise, the ship’s duties involved much more than patrolling the shoreline and little islands. “I didn’t realize that there were so many things to do,” he says.
According to Mr. Kwon, Chinese and North Korean fishing boats frequently enter South Korean territory and have to be escorted out or warned. “Whenever something appeared on the radar we had to go out and visually confirm what it was. Sometimes it was just a big piece of wood but on a radar screen nobody can tell. It’s just the same dot,” he says.
Before the June incident, Mr. Kwon already had six experiences in which his boat fired warning shots and maneuvered around boats that were not allowed in that area. After a while such activities became normal for him.
On June 29, after two North Korean patrol boats crossed into the South’s marine territory, an engagement began that initially involved four South Korean patrol boats, including Mr. Kwon’s.
After warnings and maneuvering by both sides, a North Korean shell hit the bridge of the Chamsuriho at 10:25 a.m.
“I was taking up a position to the left side of the bridge with my K-2 rifle, aiming at the North Korean vessel. Then suddenly all hell broke loose. I just started to pull the trigger. There was so much confusion around me. Screams, smoke, bullets flying all over the place. I felt like I was daydreaming,” Mr. Kwon says, shaking his head over and over.
Pointing at his right hand, he says, “Then I felt something warm on my hand. Blood poured out from it but I just kept shooting.” Mr. Kwon says that he probably emptied six full magazines before the battle was over.
Even after the North Korean vessels had left, his duties went on: he started to put out fires on his ship and aid his comrades. The skirmish left four South Korean soldiers dead, one missing and 19 wounded.
After the battle, the Chamsuriho had to be towed by another ship because of the heavy damage it had received, but en route to shore it sank to the bottom of the ocean. The ship was recovered in August, along with the body of a missing sailor. In September, another sailor, the last victim from the battle, died from his injuries.
According to the Ministry of National Defense, the boat Mr. Kwon was on had been hit by bullets 258 times; 88 percent of the damage occurred on the port side. Mr. Kwon was one of the luckier ones on board as a bullet from a North Korean 14.5- millimeter machine gun passed through the fleshy area between his index finger and thumb.
That same day he was hospitalized at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province. He called his parents and spoke briefly to them.
“It was my dad who picked up the phone. His voice was trembling because he thought I had died. He told me that my name was on the killed in action list,” Mr. Kwon says.
He remained in the hospital for almost six months, undergoing five operations. It was there that he started to think of his fallen comrades and it was then that he felt rage toward North Koreans. “You know, at the hospital there were North Korean people who had come over to the South. They had bodyguards guarding them. Even though they had not done a thing to harm me, the fact they were North Koreans just made me mad,” Mr. Kwon says.
After his release from the hospital he stayed in the navy for just one month, receiving an honorable discharge on Dec. 27, 2002, together with a medal and a payment of 5 million won ($4,244).
In 1999, in a previous deadly encounter at sea between the two Koreas, about 30 North Koreans died while nine South Koreans were wounded. That engagement lasted only five minutes. This time, 25 minutes passed before both sides stopped firing.
While on land a clear-cut line exists between the two Koreas along the Demilitarized Zone, much of the trouble at sea is due to the North’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called Northern Limit Line, which was established by the United Nations at the end of the Korean War.
North Korea has repeatedly crossed that Yellow Sea border area after declaring in 1999 that it would not accept the line.
Since North and South Korea are still technically in a state of war, the area could always act as a catalyst to trigger something bigger. Because of his personal experience, Mr. Kwon now believes that such an idea is not too far-fetched. “Before I began my service I never really paid attention to what they say about the North. Now it’s different. I think the relatively long peaceful state made me believe we are really at peace,” Mr. Kwon says. Staring at his arm, he adds, “I know better now. And I am still lucky enough to be here and to talk about it.”
This month, Mr. Kwon said he has contacted a couple of the crew members who fought alongside him on the Chamsuriho.
Although he and his mates do not talk directly about what happened, deep inside they know that from now on every year around this time they will have something to think about that other people won’t.
Mr. Kwon, who plans to help his family run the farm after graduation, said he thinks that while his daily life will be normal, he’ll forever harbor a different view of the North Koreans.
“It’s not only the North’s regime anymore, but the soldiers as well. I don’t know what to think of them anymore. They shot at us. They can do it again to anyone.”
by Brian Lee