[FORUM]The back of a hand to our heroesJeon Yong-il was 19 when he fought in the Korean War in 1950. In July, 1953, he was taken prisoner by the Chinese at the battle of Mount Gyoam near the central front line, in one of the fiercest clashes between the two sides before the armistice.
Last May, Mr. Jeon escaped from the North by crossing the Duman River into China with his son. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense and the National Police Agency, even after verifying Mr. Jeon’s identity, showed no interest in helping him reach South Korea. As a result, after five months of wandering in China, Mr. Jeon was arrested and imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for carrying a forged passport.
An old soldier presumed dead turns up alive and ready to return home, and yet his country has turned him into a criminal under the law of another country. All the more, it tried to hush up the affair by manipulating the facts.
North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong-il have consistently demanded the return of prisoners of war in South Korea who have not changed their ideology. Their efforts have met with significant results. In 1993, North Korea was able to receive a long-time prisoner here, Lee In-mo. Mr. Lee’s journey from Panmunjeom to Pyeongyang was televised live in North Korea as the return of a hero. Over 300,000 Pyeongyang people greeted Mr. Lee in a parade on the streets. Kim Il Sung visited him at the hospital where he was briefly treated, and he was given a house and living expenses equal to that of a deputy prime minister. He was deemed a national hero and was given the highest medal of honor in the country. The 63 unrepentant pro-North Korean supporters who were sent back to the North in 2000 were also given big apartments with heating and cooling systems, a luxury in the North. Like Mr. Lee, they also received the highest of honors and treatment.
This drastic contrast between how the two Koreas treat their war veterans is shocking. It is obvious which army and people would serve their country with all their heart and show the greater patriotism and loyalty. What makes one despair all the more is the fact that President Roh Moo-hyun, the supreme commander of the South Korean military, and other military authority leaders have chosen to ignore the issue so far and have not made any comment. How long will they remain deaf to the desperate pleas of this tragic war hero? Why does the president, who even visited a rally of illegal Korean-Chinese immigrants in Seoul to give words of encouragement, overlook the negligence of duty and breach of national discipline committed by senior officials?
Such questions might be a waste of breath. After all, President Kim Dae-jung restrained himself from calling on the families of the soldiers who died defending our country from a North Korean ship in the Yellow Sea, and our top military officials did not attend the funerals of these soldiers. Such is the tradition of our military command.
Civilian society cannot escape blame either. There are civic groups that demand that even North Korean prisoners of war who have rejected their communist ideology be sent back to the North.
All those social, religious and civic leaders who show up to cry for justice, love and solidarity whenever there is a humanitarian or peace issue at hand have not said a word about the issue of Mr. Jeon.
Why are all those scholars and professors who decried the arrest of Song Du-yul, an alleged politburo member of the North Korean Workers’ Party, keeping silent on the injustice being done to Mr. Jeon?
Where is the former military chief of staff, Kim Dong-shin, who handed a congratulatory bouquet of flowers to the 63 North Koreans who refused to change their ideology before they returned home?
What more nobler and lofty mission is there than to defend one’s country? A soldier who was taken prisoner by the enemy while trying to fulfill this mission is now trying to return home by his own efforts. Yet his country is ignoring him. Why is everyone remaining silent?
Our prosperity today is possible because of the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought for our country in the Korean War. Only 32 prisoners of war have been able to return home so far. Most of them came home through their own efforts. They were not given any particular attention or special treatment. There are still thought to be more than 500 prisoners of war living in North Korea. These people are faced with complete neglect and disinterest.
What must we do to change such a disgraceful state of affairs?
The National Assembly should immediately invoke its right to investigate the administration and inquire about Mr. Jeon’s case and those of other prisoners of war. Based on the findings of the investigation, the government must set up a system that helps the repatriation of those prisoners should they manage to escape. These men should be automatically returned home and given the treatment that is their due. Is this not the duty of the National Assembly?
The administration also should learn from the tenacity of North Korea in demanding its soldiers be allowed to return home. The government must shed the false assumption that bringing up the issue of prisoners of war would provoke North Korea. They must establish and implement a policy that can bring our heroes back home.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Sioux Lee