A nameless heroKIM HYUN-YE
The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
At 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, I was in a residential area in Nerima, Tokyo. The trees in the park had red and yellow autumn leaves. Next to the park was an old rental house with a wheelchair outside. A stained business card was placed on the door instead of a plaque. Oh Sung-kyu is the name of the 99-year-old patriot, the only surviving member of the Liberation Army in Japan.
As I turned the doorknob, the door opened. A passing neighbor said, “As the helper comes often, he keeps the door unlocked.” Oh had fallen asleep while watching a baseball game. Due to limited mobility, it is not easy for him to go out. He doesn’t have any visitors other than the helper from the district office who comes four times a day. His wife passed away and his Japanese nephew serves as his guardian. After eating porridge and fruits prepared by the helper, he sat on the sofa and said, “I guess it’s about time for me to die. I am feeling very ill.”
There is a medal in the cupboard next to the sofa. It was given to Oh by former president Roh Tae-woo. But the name on the National Foundation Order of Merit is Joo Tae-seok, an alias he used while serving in the Liberation Army. More than 30 years have passed, but he still hasn’t received a medal under his real name. He is almost 100 years old, but remains an “unnamed hero.”
He cheered up and shared old stories. Born in North Korea just before graduating from middle school at age 16, Oh joined the 3rd Liberation Army in Chongqing, China. In the Liberation Army, he met independence movement leader Kim Gu. He learned the news of Korea’s liberation during parachute training in China. When asked why he volunteered, he said in a clear voice, “Korea should be independent. That was the happiest time of my life.” As I left after the interview, he followed me to the door. “It’s been a while since I spoke in Korean, it makes me so happy,” he said.
On Nov. 11 each year, an event is held by the volunteer army of the students in Japan to commemorate the soldiers fallen in the 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir, one of the fiercest battles during the Korean War. After 642 young Koreans and students who were in Japan at the time of the war volunteered, only two survived.
There are only 26 surviving residents in Japan with Korean nationality over the age of 100, having endured that painful history. Time goes by. Political leaders like to say, “We must not forget” whenever they have a chance. But it is an empty phrase before the survivors.