Hungarian diplomats on the Korean battlefield

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Hungarian diplomats on the Korean battlefield

Mózes Csoma
Ambassador of Hungary to Korea


1. Preparing a camouflaged building for the Hungarian medical team in North Korea in August, 1950. 2. Hungarian envoy Sandor Simics (1901-1976), who served in North Korea during the first phase of the Korean War. [Hungarian Embassy]

The first moment Hungarian diplomats in Pyongyang realized the seriousness of the Korean War was on Sunday, July 23, 1950, at around 10 o’clock, when debris from a bomb hit the roof of the envoy’s house and made a hole in the ceiling. The envoy, Sandor Simics, who had been a pilot of the Soviet Red Army several years ago and knew the particularities of the air warfare, immediately sent a report to Budapest about the developments and attached some photos of his damaged house.

Based on the archive reports sent by Sandor Simics to Budapest, the cooperation between the legation and the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not free from difficulties during the first months of the Korean War.

Occasionally, the Hungarian legation asked for assistance from the ministry, but they were usually late to take measures. When the Hungarian legation asked the ministry to send official translations of a few articles, and some photo illustrations about the actual developments, the ministry replied that their translator and their photographer were both called up to fight in the war, therefore they could not fulfill the request.

The ministry also postponed the usual briefings for the diplomatic corps in Pyongyang, and announced that their communiques would be delivered by the North Korean embassies abroad.

Finally, the answer to the envoy’s complaint arrived from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that the “Korean comrades” were probably very busy because of the war, and they might not have experience of how to cooperate with foreign diplomatic missions.

A bizarre banquet

Meanwhile, hearing the news from the Korean battlefield, the Hungarian government decided to set up a field hospital in North Korea. The first Hungarian medical team - including seven surgeons, five operating theater assistants, one internist and one political leader - arrived to Korea on July 28, 1950.

Two days later, the medical team and the Hungarian diplomats were invited for a banquet dinner hosted by Foreign Minister Park Hon-yong and some other North Korean officials in the building of the prime minister’s office. According to the report written by Simics, the event started out like any other normal one, everybody being polite and well mannered, but turned into a bizarre experience.

The hosts and the guests were sitting around a big table, and two young Korean girls started to serve chocolates, candies and compotes. Later, the young ladies brought boiled eggs, sliced salami and Russian canned sweet peppers, but without any bread or plates. The guests started to eat without their own plates, and Simics and Park ended up eating together from the same salver. After that, the girls served sliced watermelons, and, finally, brought the breads. At the end of the bizarre banquet, miraculously, the plates arrived, too. Simics wrote in his report that probably all of the food had previously been prepared in the kitchen, but the young ladies might have served it in the wrong order.

Evacuation from Pyongyang

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1950, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang informed the resident diplomatic missions that they would all have to be evacuated from the capital. In his report, Simics wrote that the ministry asked them to pack up their belongings by that evening. The diplomats were already prepared, but they did not have any transport vehicles; therefore, they asked for two trucks from the ministry. However, the Koreans could not answer them about the travel assistance until late in the afternoon on the following day. Finally, on Oct. 8 at around 8 o’clock in the evening, only one truck arrived, and the Hungarians decided to bring only their most important belongings from the legation. First, the envoy’s passenger car, which was an American-made Dodge, and the truck moved to a meeting point where the drivers were told where the destination was. The convoy of the diplomatic corps departed around half past 11 at night and spent the whole night traveling. The following morning, the convoy stopped near a wooded area where the vehicles were hidden under the trees and haystacks.

The members of the diplomatic corps scattered into the woods trying to find shelter under the bushes. From 8 o’clock in the morning, the air raids started again, the aircrafts were checking the forests and the roads, forcing the diplomats to spend the whole day in their hideout, not moving a single muscle. The convoy left the wooded area only in the evening, at around 7 o’clock. The diplomats passed by desolate villages that had been bombed to the ground and crossed some seriously damaged bridges and makeshift pontoons. The envoy’s Dodge car, which carried the women and children, got stuck in the mud on the way, but that issue was eventually solved. Finally, the convoy reached its destination; although the exact place is unknown, it is probable that they arrived at Shinuiju city. The diplomatic corps were accommodated in an empty hospital building, and the envoys slept in the houses of the local authorities. From the following day on, each mission was provided with vacated Korean houses as new venues for their diplomatic activity. The restaurant at the local railway station was opened for foreigners, and a store was also designated for them; there the prices were lower than in the local market. According to the envoy’s report, bread was available there, as well. Two days later, a truck arrived from Pyongyang, which brought the Hungarians their belongings that were left behind at the legation. The freight was accompanied by three North Korean employees of the Hungarian legation, but one of them, the driver, hurried back to Pyongyang, as his family was staying there.

Odyssey in Manchuria

Only two weeks passed before the diplomatic corps had to hit the road again. However, this time, Simics made sure to send the majority of the legation’s equipment directly to Beijing. The convoy carrying the diplomats passed high mountain roads, where the truck of the Hungarians overturned twice.

Upon reaching the new destination, the foreigners were once again accommodated in Korean houses, and a small store was opened for them, where the only food available was bread and apples. According to the archive report, Simics was able to buy a pig somewhere on the spot, so they could consume some pork.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 1, 1950, the local post office refused to take over the diplomats’ telegram messages. Shortly after that incident, the deputy minister from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the diplomatic corps that they had to leave the territory of Korea because of the military situation.

Meanwhile, rumors emerged that parachutists had landed 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the diplomats, which was confirmed later, but the distance was only 16 kilometers.

The North Korean authorities could not provide the Hungarians with any vehicles, therefore Simics sent the women and children ahead in his Dodge passenger car. The other diplomatic corps also left for Manchuria. Later, the Chinese diplomats sent back one of their trucks for the Hungarian envoy, his staff, and the belongings.

Arriving at Manchuria, probably in Dandong in Liaoning Province, the Korean and the Chinese officials were at a loss regarding the accommodation of the evacuated diplomatic corps. Therefore, the convoy had no choice but to continue the odyssey in Manchuria for days, covering more than 500 kilometers and crossing two rivers without any bridges. The cars got stuck in the cold water, so the passengers had no choice but to leave the flooded vehicles and cross the river themselves, carefully walking on the stones of the river bed.

Soon after that, they finally arrived in Jian city in Jilin Province. However, the city was not prepared for housing them, and the North Korean deputy minister of foreign affairs informed the corps that during the recent days the military situation has changed and that they can return to Korea. According to the Hungarian envoy’s report, the Soviet diplomats were the first to cross the Amnok (Yalu) River back to Korea on Nov. 7, 1950. The other missions followed them, supposedly to Manpho city, and the corps were accommodated in small “Japanese style” houses made of wood and traditional paper, without any thermal insulation. The diplomats were suffering from the cold - everybody tried to build simple stoves in their rooms. Furthermore, the town was bombed several times in the following days, and the houses of the Chinese, Mongolian and Czechoslovakian missions burned down. Due to the difficult circumstances, the Hungarian envoy temporarily went back to Manchuria to purchase some food.

Female power at the legation

It was only a matter of time until the Hungarian mission was set on fire, too. The fire was extinguished by the female first secretary, Ms. Maria Balog, and two male employees. In December, 1950, the Soviet and the Chinese embassies moved back to the reoccupied Pyongyang, but the other missions remained in the Northern part of the country. Seeing the archive reports, it seems that Simics was one of those envoys who thought that it would be better to operate the legation in Chinese territory.

Finally, after dozens of extreme experiences, the envoy left North Korea in January, 1951, and moved back to Hungary, and the above-mentioned Ms. Maria Balog was promoted to charge d’affaires at the legation in North Korea. She and her staff spent several months in almost perfect isolation and gathered information about the outside world from Soviet radio stations, which were broadcast from Khabarovsk and Moscow. She also wrote in her report that the legation’s Korean interpreter often listened to the Japanese radio, but later officials of the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs strictly forbade it.

Ms. Balog introduced new measures at the mission. The female charge d’affaires made efforts to reconstruct their houses: She made sure to remove the simple stoves from the rooms, provided cement and lime, called for professionals, and purchased carpets for the floor. She also bought plates, glasses and cutlery to be used when organizing hospitality events. Ms. Balog often sent her staff back to Manchuria to purchase food. She also bought a pig and poultry and started to operate a mini farm around the mission.

The former envoy’s Dodge car, which broke during the continuous odyssey, was also repaired in Manchuria. Ms. Balog soon earned the respect of the diplomatic corps and the North Korean officials; therefore, Foreign Minister Park Hon-yong personally proposed that she receive a state award. (To be continued…)
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