Former guerrilla lives for a reunited KoreaBUSAN
As one of the few female partisans during the Korean War, Park Sun-ja fought for the communists from a camp hidden in the mountains. For her guerrilla activities, she spent 10 years in a South Korean prison. But toughest part of her life, Ms. Park says, has been being a wife and mother.
Marriage and motherhood haven’t lessened her interest in Korean politics or her partisanship, however. Ms. Park, 75, frowns when somebody uses “North Korea” to describe the communist nation.
“There is no such country as North Korea,” she says in a clear, strong voice. “It should be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
Still a prominent figure in left-wing politics, Ms. Park, who lives in Busan, often takes requests from student activists for lectures. Her activism will be profiled in a documentary titled “Forgotten Warriors,” which will be screened at the 6th Women’s Film Festival in Seoul next month.
Director Kim Jin-yeul became good friends with Ms. Park over the past few years. “As a woman, Ms. Park had to keep moving ceaselessly, to achieve what she is today in her family and society,” Ms. Kim says. “Her life tells graphic tales of what it takes for a woman to get actively involved in society.”
Ms. Park was born into a well-to-do household in Hadong, South Gyeongsang province. As a teenager, she started to wonder about the social hierarchy while observing the servants at her house.
“I was just a kid and didn’t know much about life and society back then, but something looked quite wrong,” Ms. Park says. “People are born as equals, but I couldn’t understand why some of them have to be above others.”
Ms. Park’s elder brothers, who liked to read books such as “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx, instilled in her the basics of socialism.
After the country’s liberation from Japan in 1945, her brothers joined the Communist Party. Under the newly established South Korean government, Communist Party activities were strictly controlled, so her brothers used their sister as a liaison because as a girl, she would not attract attention from the police.
From then on, Ms. Park herself felt strongly drawn to communism, wanting to create a society where everyone is happy and equal. She joined the Communist Party and became the head of the women’s committee of the party’s branch in her hometown.
Following the party’s order, Ms. Park became a factory worker in Busan. Then came the Korean War on June 25, 1950.
For most South Koreans, the invasion from the North was a nightmare. For Ms. Park and her comrades, however, it signaled the arrival of paradise. Ms. Park did not hesitate to join the party’s partisan squad in Mount Jiri, near her hometown. She was 21.
Life in the camp
Jiri, one of the biggest and most rugged mountains on the peninsula, served as a fine base for guerrillas, whose numbers grew to more than 2,000, Ms. Park recalls. She was one of the few female partisans there. The first thing a female guerrillas had to do was cut her hair short to blend in with the men.
In battle, the women weren’t allowed to make so much as a peep. “Women were more vulnerable, so we paid extra attention not to get caught,” Ms. Park says.
Cutting hair was easy, but dealing with her monthly menstrual cycles proved tough. “Battles, small and big, took place almost every day in the mountains, and it was extra hard for us the female fighters to go through all that too,” Ms. Park recalls.
After one year in the mountains, however, Ms. Park found her period had stopped. “I felt sick off and on during the first year in the mountains, which I did not take for something serious. Before I knew it, however, my period was gone ― just like that.
“The strange thing is that my period came back after I came down from the mountain. Maybe I was like a male as a partisan,” Ms. Park says, with a faint smile.
Instead of participating in combat, Ms. Park worked as a liaison, just as she did during her teenage years. She also played the mother role in the camp, cooking for comrades and opening communist theory sessions.
But she endured her share of battles. Ms. Park’s body is covered with bullet scars. Her left arm still contains shrapnel from grenades, giving her severe pain daily.
After the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the partisans on Mount Jiri found themselves in South Korean-controlled territory. The few survivors hid in the mountains.
Eking out a life on a spoonful of saccharin melted in water, Ms. Park spent a few months in hiding until January1954. One afternoon, Ms. Park, while washing her hands in the valley, found herself surrounded by the South Korean army. Ms. Park was taken as a prisoner of war and left the mountains after having spent four years there.
After the war
In the court martial, Ms. Park denied she violated seven laws, including the National Security Law, saying, “I’m not guilty. What do you think I could do, being a woman in the mountains?”
Almost five decades later, Ms. Park smiles at her not-guilty plea and says, “Well, I thought that would help to reduce the charges.”
It didn’t work. Ms. Park was sentenced to death and shuttled off to various prisons around the country. However, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and later she was granted clemency. In 1964, Ms. Park left prison after serving 10 years.
With her family disintegrated, she was alone and had nowhere to go. In prison, she had learned some beauty skills, which she used to open a salon in Busan. Then she met Choi Sang-won, another guerrilla fighter in the war, through a friend. The couple married in 1965 and had two daughters.
Even after the release, Ms. Park was not completely free. Her first daughter, whose dream was to be a teacher, could not get a job because of her parents, who had been blacklisted. Police also followed Ms. Park and her family around, harassing and threatening them, making life miserable.
“Maybe I should have died in battle,” Ms. Park says. “Bullets happened to miss the mark, and I was alive, but I was nothing but a living corpse.”
Her first daughter eventually was able to get a job as a part-time teacher, but she quit last year and is now getting married at the end of the month. One of Ms. Park’s biggest concerns these days is how the family will manage without her after the wedding. Ms. Park cannot work because of her other daughter, who is mentally disabled.
But that does not keep Ms. Park from participating in politics. After an interview, Ms. Park got herself ready quickly to take part in the candlelight protests against the impeachment against President Roh.
The front door to Ms. Park and Mr. Choi’s tiny, rundown apartment in Busan speaks of their fondest hope. On it, refined calligraphy spells out “tong-il dagyeong” in Chinese characters, which means “reunification will bring much happiness and fortune.” Mr. Choi, 82, wrote and posted the sign. The couple want to see the two Koreas reunited before they die.
“The only cause in our lives from beginning to end is the independent reunification of the two Koreas. We’ve been fighting for that cause, losing everything else in our lives,” Mr. Choi says. “Some people would call us stupid fools for that. But we don’t care. We are happy to be what we are, for that’s what’s right for us.”
by Chun Su-jin