A family retraces its wartime journey

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A family retraces its wartime journey

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Kim Tae-ho, far right, professor emeritus at Gwangju University, leads his family as they re-enact their overland flight from Seoul to Gochang during the Korean War. The group passed Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday and it expects to reach Gochang on April 24 after walking a distance of over 300 kilometers (186 miles). By Park Jong-keun

When Kim Tae-ho, 66, professor emeritus at Gwangju University in Gwangju, South Jeolla, was 6 years old, his father gathered the whole family together. His father, Kim Jae-sun, who died in 1983, told them to pack their belongings and said that they must prepare to flee Seoul and go south.

The day was Aug. 29, 1950. The Korean War (1950-53), which had begun on June 25, was starting to intensify, the professor recalled, and their father felt the family had to leave in order to protect themselves.

“Since Seoul is dangerous, let’s go to the south and stay there until the war comes to an end,” the professor quoted his father as saying.

At the time, Kim’s family was living in Yongsan, central Seoul.

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The professor said the front line was so close to the capital city that they could hear the sound of gunfire in their home. During the day, fighter planes flew low in the sky above them.

The next day, Kim’s family fled south toward Gochang, North Jeolla, pulling a handcart filled with cooking utensils and clothes. The distance was over 300 kilometers (186 miles).

Traveling with Kim and his parents were six of his nine brothers and sisters. His three other siblings had already left for Gochang.

Since all of the bridges over the Han River had by then been destroyed, the family had to cross the river by boat, Tae-ho said.

As they walked south on unpaved roads, clouds of dust rose up before them everywhere they went.

The weather was steaming hot and everyone was sweating profusely.

As their journey extended over the next 18 days, the family’s health began to deteriorate and some of them began to suffer from malnutrition. But finally they reached their destination.

Nearly 60 years have passed since the professor’s fateful journey.

This year, the professor and his family decided to re-enact their flight to Gochang as a way to remember the war and honor their parents, who suffered a great deal during the long trip.

The group set out from Samkwang Elementary School in Yongsan on April 10.

On Tuesday, nine members of Kim’s family were walking on the side road that connects Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, and Cheonan, South Chungcheong. The Korean phrases on their shirt read: “Desire for unification and prosperity. Re-enacting our flight to mark the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.”

In their hands, they held the Taegukgi, the Korean national flag. Behind them, a nine-seat van trailed them, its emergency lights blinking.

The professor led the group of nine elderly men, walking out in front. The wind was strong and the cars raced by their small group at breakneck speeds, but the group continued undeterred, spurred by the feeling they were walking to complete a larger task.

“Whenever I see a train running, I wish that the day comes when trains can travel all over the Korean Peninsula without a break,” the professor said. “Through this walk, our desire for reunification has increased.”

Kim and his family have been planning for the trip for the last two years. They first surveyed the route last November, estimating the distance they could walk in a day and deciding which direction they would go. They also made reservations at yeogwan, small family-run inns.

In addition, each family member was assigned a specific task related to the trip. The professor’s wife, Kim Hye-kyung, 61, is in charge of the group’s health care and the wife of one of his cousins, Lee Myung-rye, 58, is in charge of administrative tasks.

For the past year, they have been walking one to two hours a day to get themselves in shape.

“Since we are all more than 60 years old, we had to prepare thoroughly so that no one would get hurt,” the professor said.

He said the group, which walks 20 to 25 kilometers a day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., expects to reach Gochang on April 24.

Unlike their previous journey, the van now transports their luggage and the group can stop to sleep, the professor said. They also have the appropriate attire, including running shoes, and can taste regional specialities along the way, he said.

If their evacuation during the war was more like a march, this trip is more like a family reunion, he said.

When the group left the Samkwang school, around 40 of their relatives gathered to cheer them on, the professor said.

Throughout the trip, the professor has been posting photos and daily reports about the group’s progress online for their friends and relatives to see.


By Han Eun-hwa [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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