Success comes after a series of struggles, loss

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Success comes after a series of struggles, loss

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A yearbook photo of 23-year-old Kim Jong-pil and his fellow military academy graduates, who were commissioned on May 23, 1949. Kim is fourth from left. Provided by Kim Jong-pil

For two years, between 1946 and 1948, I tasted the sweetness of college coupled with the bitterness of reality. I enrolled at Seoul National University to study education, dreaming about a setting like Eton College in a liberated Korea. But during my second year, my father died, leaving our family with massive debts from a failed gold mine investment. After settling those debts, all we had left was a house in Seoul and another in my father’s hometown in South Chungcheong.

I leased the Seoul house and purchased a small used car with the money from the lease and registered to use it as a cab. In June 1948, I gave up on my education due to the worsening financial strain and made ends meet working as a taxi driver.

Just a month after I started my taxi business, I was involved in a car accident. In early July 1948, a tram turned its course and rammed the cab. I wasn’t injured, but the vehicle’s right side was badly wrecked and I had to get rid of it. At that point, it seemed like I had run out of luck. My mother was a widow and had no money saved.

The next day, I saw a recruitment poster in front of Pagoda Park in the Jongno District for infantry solders under the Army’s nascent 13th infantry regiment. I submitted my application on the spot.

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Kim Jong-pil addresses his fellow Korean Military Academy classmates on May 23, 1966, to commemorate the 17th anniversary since their graduation. Provided by Kim Jong-pil

At 1 p.m. the next day, I had my physical examination in front of Yongsan Station. The examiner declared me fit to serve and told me to wait. The same day, I got on a train bound for Cheonan in South Chungcheong for boot camp.

The 13th regiment was set up in the playground of an elementary school. In a telltale sign of the rampant poverty in the pre-divided Korea, we were issued shirts and shorts for work uniforms, instead of formal military attire.

Apparently influenced by the training style of the Japanese Imperial Army during its 36-year colonial rule, we were constantly subject to physical disciplinary punishment for little to no reason. With no guns provided, we had no military instructions except for close-order drills.

Military meals were nothing but rice mixed with corn, and everyone had a [bloated] stomach due to the poor quality of the food. I enlisted in the Army because I sought a new life filled with renewed opportunities at the expense of my higher education. But I felt as if the military was depriving me of whatever chance I had left.

On the 10th day, I stood guard at the barracks with fellow classmate Im Dal-soon.

It was pouring rain that night, and I disclosed to him my plan to escape.

“Let’s run away from this place,” I said. “It will make us crazy.”

But he turned down my idea, saying, “I came from the North. There is no one to look after me, unlike you. At least I get to be fed here. If you want to run, you can do it on your own.”

So I asked him not to report my absence for the next two hours.

I jumped over the barbed-wire fence and headed to my friend’s house, a friend who had recently gotten married. Standing at the door, I called out my friend’s name.

“Hey, Young-min!”

Young-min, my classmate from middle school, shut his door as soon as he saw my face, thinking I was a beggar. I called out his name again, saying it was me, Jong-pil. After staying at his house for a night, I headed back to Seoul. But my mind was filled with a sense of regret and guilt.

I was becoming more and more embarrassed and ashamed. So on Aug. 3, 1948, about three weeks after I deserted, I went to a movie in Eulji-ro, central Seoul. At the theater, I saw a group of men in military uniforms.

“Most of those in uniforms had enlisted with only middle school diplomas. And I had dropped out of the program having once been enrolled at a university. How shameful is that?” I kept asking myself. I stood up from my seat and found the military official overseeing the group. I told the official, First Lieutenant Ki Se-hoon, that I had gone AWOL but now wished to return to the military.

He asked me about my education and I told him I was once a student at Seoul National University. “You are an elitist for having pursued a college degree,” he said. “Why do you want to join the army again?”

I begged him to accept me as one of his fellow soldiers and he eventually accepted.

About two weeks after re-enlisting, my classmates and I were told to write an essay explaining why we wanted to join the Army. I detailed my educational background as well as why I had decided to run away from the Army just months ago. Four days later, another first lieutenant, Choi Taek-won, summoned me to his office.

As I entered, he said, “Why are you receiving training with those who are less than you?”

He then recommended I take the test for the Korean Military Academy, the equivalent of West Point in the United States.

In January of the next year, I took the admissions test for the academy and passed. The competition was fairly intense and only one in 10 applicants gained admission.

I was among the eighth group of graduates and the duration of our training only lasted five months. At my graduation ceremony on May 23, 1949, I met my mother for the first time in nearly a year. I gave her a big hug as a proud son while she cried.

COMPLIED BY CHUN YOUNG-GI, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]
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