A tale of two armies
It wasn’t about shifting ideologies for Choi, but the desire to live that made him point his gun.
Here is Choi’s story, arranged by JoongAng Sunday, based on interviews with him.
When the war began on June 25, 1950, with North Korean tanks descending across the 38th parallel, Choi considered it a foreign affair. Choi, after all, was just a 22-year-old farmer living in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang, in the southern part of the peninsula - far away, at least at that point, from the violence.
Plus, he and his wife had a newly born son, and he still had his parents and three younger brothers to look after.
But by mid-July, refugees were flooding into his town. Choi packed up, and he and his family headed further south. On their journey, they spent a few days by a brook, where they came face-to-face with the North Korean army for the first time. But against Choi’s expectation, the soldiers were not cruel - they just told them to go back home.
When Choi’s family returned to their town, they realized that the world had changed. The biggest house in town was now a North Korean office, and the town’s younger residents formed a North Korean military unit, into which Choi was drafted.
Choi dedicated himself to military training. The North Korean army had him carry loaded shells and food. They even put him in charge of arms training. But Choi was never fully trusted by his fellow soldiers because of his southern origin.
In mid-September, he teamed up with a North Korean soldier as a signalman and proceeded towards a North Korean base in Andong, North Gyeongsang. When they arrived, they saw a group of North Korean motorcycles heading not south but north. It was clear they were retreating. Choi was not aware of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s tide-turning Incheon landing on Sept. 15.
By the end of the month, the South had taken Seoul back, and Choi’s companion urged him to go to the north. When they reached Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang, Choi bravely shouted, “I am not going north. Go by yourself.” The soldier pointed his gun at Choi’s heart. Choi, too, took aim.
Glaring, the two began walking away from one another. When they were far enough apart, the North Korean soldier ran off, and Choi headed home.
By the time he arrived home, American trucks were driving through the town. Choi was investigated for a week at the town police station, now back in the South’s possession. It was now autumn, and Choi and his family had to harvest.
But the war did not leave him alone. He became a soldier again on Nov. 13, 1950. This time he was a South Korean soldier. His mother was devastated, wondering why her son’s life was so ill-fated. She cried while harvesting the fields.
Optimism prevailed in South Korea as ROK and UN troops advanced north with little resistance. They broke through the 38th parallel on Oct. 1. They made a triumphant entry into Pyongyang on Oct. 19. And they threw a ceremony at Pyongyang’s city hall, with President Syngman Rhee presiding, on Oct. 30. They didn’t know that 300,000 Chinese soldiers were flooding into the peninsula.
After a week of training, Choi was sent north on the floor of a freight train. He was placed with the Seventh Division, which was confronting its enemy on the other side of the Bukhan River. Choi was given a new version of the M1 rifle. It was much heavier than the North’s submachine gun. Choi was sent to the front line as soon as he got there.
But the tide was once again turning, this time against the South. The Chinese army was mighty. They had gotten experience in the Chinese Civil War. Like an avalanche on Mount Kumgang, South Korean and UN forces were pushed down south. The war front was once again close to the 38th parallel.
One day in May 1951, on top of a mountain in Gangwon, Choi looked north. A rain shower had just passed through, but the sky was soon filled with mortar, filling the air with thick clouds of smoke and dust as they landed around him. When the bombardment stopped, Choi looked down at the field below. It was filled with Chinese troops. No matter how many times he pulled the trigger, the number of Chinese soldiers stayed the same.
Choi and his fellow soldiers ran out of ammunition, and they were soon surrounded by the enemy. Chinese soldiers were trampling over corpses as they headed toward Choi.
Choi made a run for it. Then he felt an unbearable pain in his left forearm. He had been shot. Choi, with six fellow soldiers, hid in the mountains and escaped the Chinese. On the fourth day of their journey, the Chinese army closed in on them. “Let us kill at least one more Chinese since we cannot run away anymore,” Choi’s fellow soldiers said. They threw grenades.
But once again, they ran out of ammunition. Choi walked up to the Chinese army, his hands raised in the air. He had not eaten in four days and could not stand when Chinese soldiers captured him. It was May 18, 1951.
Choi was handed over to the North Korean army. Healthy POWs were sent north, and wounded ones - including Choi - were sent to temples and homes on Mount Kumgang. At a POW camp, Choi was made to work transporting the wounded. He was also brainwashed, listening to lectures on socialism and the People’s Republic. In the evenings, Choi was made to participate in self-criticism as well as criticism of others.
Choi wondered how his mother, wife, two-year-old son and the harvest were doing. His younger brothers were still too young to lead the family. The thoughts made him focus on surviving and returning home. He knew there was a way to go back: converting his politics and nationality.
Choi worked and trained hard. Two months passed, and only two out of hundreds of POWs were chosen to serve. Choi was one of the two. The North Korean army trained the two, but Choi was already familiar with the submachine gun from his time in the South Korean army. After training, Choi and the other were sent to a combat unit. On his way there, he passed by dead bodies hanging on tree branches.
Choi’s political conversion was a disguise. It was the only way he could escape. On his second day with the unit, Choi left with a submachine gun and two grenades.
When he arrived near Hongcheon at the Bukhan River, he could see the South Korean army just on the other side. Choi swam across. He ran southward. One American soldier saw him running but did not shoot at Choi. Choi’s second turn serving in the North Korean army ended just like that.
Choi was sent to a POW camp in Daegu. After Choi’s life-threatening journey, he was investigated for a month. Choi passed the inspection. But then he lost his mind - a result of the trauma and shock he had experienced. His eyes could not focus, and he suffered frequent seizures at night.
When his mother and wife discovered where he was and came to visit, Choi did not recognize them. After his recovery at a military hospital, Choi was called back into the army. It was the winter of 1951, and Choi was back on the war front.
The war ended on July 27, 1953. Choi was discharged on Nov. 10, 1954. In April 1954, the South Korean government awarded Choi the Order of Military Merit Hwarang. But the merit was only delivered to Choi in 2005. The delay was due to an administrative mistake.
Choi doesn’t think that he fought for liberty or democracy. He doesn’t think he fought for the Republic of Korea. He fought to stay alive, to be back with his family. He fought for North Korea twice but risked his life to come back to the South.
A man of the nation’s merit, Choi Won-pal is happy he will be buried at the National Cemetery.
“I am glad that my descendents do not have to tidy up my grave,” Choi said.
By Choi Jeong-dong [firstname.lastname@example.org]