The Korean War most of us know is the one suffered in the South. It usually starts with the invasion of Seoul then goes down to Daejon and Gwangju, then there is a counterattack on the Nakdong River and all the way back up to the Yalu River and then down to the 38th Parallel and an uneasy truce.
But Kim Jin Chul (75), who experienced the Korean War in Pyongyang, has a different image embedded in his memory.
The day the Korean War started was an ordinary day. People came and went with great urgency, but Kim and his family were watching out for the chance to go to South Korea. His family had come north because of his grandmother, who was sick in her Pyongsung home, and could not return. His mother said it was actually quite a good thing.
“I knew that a war had broken out when I heard Kim Il Sung’s radio address on June 28th, where he announced, ‘We have captured Seoul after just four days following South Korea’s sneak attack’,” Kim recalls. He didn’t even know what war was, but after hearing from his mother that it is where ‘some people live and some people die’ his heart dropped.
Just seven months after the outbreak of war Kim became an orphan. “I was trembling with fear,” he recalls. “My father and then mother both died in the bombing, but I still waited for them to come back. You have no idea how scared I was waiting for my mother.”
Three days after the outbreak of war, President Truman approved support for the ROK army. On the 29th, the day after North Korea invaded Seoul, the U.S. mobilized B-29 Super Fortresses to bomb major cities including Pyongyang.
Kim and his family went into the nearby mountains to escape. He lived with his grandfather, parents and younger sister in a hut. That August, his father lost his life in the bombing, but they never even found the body.
His mother also died in January the same year. “My mother went to the factory where my father worked to ask for his salary,” he explains. “But she never returned again. One day her body came back to us but we could not recognize her.”
After that, Kim went through three long years of suffering. He lived on handfuls of rice and grass. Even after the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 7th, 1953, his suffering did not stop. He entered elementary school but was mobilized to carry stones and soil to restore sites damaged in the war. We “carried stones and soil across mountains and rivers the whole day except for two hours,” he explains. It was a routine that continued until he graduated from vocational school in 1965.
Thereafter, Kim lived as a worker. His visit to Pyongsung in 1948 had turned into a permanent change of residence. He was still there to feel the pain of starvation in the 1990s, and it took him a total of 64 years to defect and come back home, thinking about how late his arrival had become.
|-What did Pyongsung look like on June 25th, 1950?
My father was on university faculty and so we lived in university housing. I lived with my grandmother, father, mother and younger sister. That Sunday morning my father left early to go fishing with his friends. It was no different to an ordinary day. I had no idea that war had broken out.
-When did you hear news about the war?
Three days later through Kim Il Sung’s address on the radio. Then I learned that the U.S. and the South Korean Rhee Seung Man had caused the war. I did not really know what war was but my heart sank. I remember asking my mother why a war had happened. At that time my mother told me that war was about killing and saving people. War went on among militaries but the people had no idea why. We knew that it was a scary thing because people were dying around us.
-After four days the U.S. attacked.
Shortly after news of the war was released, bombs were dropped from an airplane. Many ended up dead after wanting to go watch the black things which fell from the sky. My friends asked me to go ‘watch the planes poop black things’. One day I saw my friend bombed to death in front of his door, which was frightening.
I lost both parents in the bombing. In October of 1950 my father went to work as usual but died trying to hide after the air raid sirens went off. Other people’s dead bodies were found but my father’s was not. (cries) My mother died the following year as she went to my father’s university to get his salary (ration tickets).
-Your life on the run?
In July 1950 we fled to the mountains. We thought it would be a safe place because they could not see us from above. I still shake in fear thinking about war. I will never be able to forgive Kim Il Sung. Thinking about that day in March of 1951… how painful it was waiting for my mother… my heart still hurts thinking about it.
My only relatives were my grandmother and uncle, but my uncle went into the army during his college year. After that I lived with my grandmother and sister. We ate grass porridge made with a handful of rice and grass. Sometimes my face would get swollen and I would have a fever because the grass had poison in it. I lived like that for three years. People who had lived in the city now lived in mud huts; you would not have imagined how hard it was for me at such a young age. Drawing water with a well bucket was beyond my endurance.
-What was the situation like in Pyongsung when the allied forces came?
The ROK and U.S. forces did not harm us in any way. The people who were out on the run returned home. They handed out sweets to the children. At the time we were able to freely attend chapel. However, after the war ended we could not go to chapel anymore. We had to continue living in mud huts and lived day to day. It was very hard; I don’t have many memories from those days. My grandmother operated a fruit vendor.
-Life after the Armistice Agreement?
I entered elementary school in 1955. I moved from an underground tunnel to a one-story house to an apartment, so I transferred schools three times. The children’s main task was to fill in craters. Building houses the adults did. Under the lead of our teacher we were mobilized to the craters. The children only studied until 2pm and the rest of the day was used to fill in the craters from bombs. Teachers at that time told us that the war was started by the U.S. and South Korean President Rhee Seung Man. My grandmother was also mobilized for recovery labor. The recovery labor went on for ten years.
I did so much work. I carried bricks, rocks and carried soil in large straw bags. We were in trouble for being a few minutes late and so I couldn’t say anything. Rations would not come often, so many starved to death. Thinking about it now it was harder at that time than in the 90s when the ‘March of Tribulation’ took place.
-How long did the recovery take?
The recovery from war ended in the 60s. Until 1965 students and construction workers were mobilized together, 50/50. The students went in the afternoon. Near the Taedong River and the expansion of the road near Kim Il Sung University etc; students had a lot of work to do. From middle school we were mobilized for farming.
-What did the schools teach?
First of all, they emphasized that the war was initiated by South Korea and the U.S. In the 1950s we learned subjects like language, arithmetic, natural history and history. We also learned about the three kingdoms, Koryo and the Chosun dynasty and also about great men in our history Lee Sun Shin, Eul Ji Moon Deok and Kang Kam Chan. From the 1960s they only taught Kim Il Sung revolutionary history.
-Did the people receive rations after the war ended?
My uncle was discharged from the army and he supported me but the rations were not great so there were many days when I had grass porridge. It was really hard. My grandmother also had a job. My parents both died during the war but having not found my father’s body we were categorized as irrelevant and did not receive rations. The authorities said that my father had run away to Seoul. I did not believe them but I was hurt my whole life because of it. Especially because my father was from South Korea, we faced harsh discrimination.
-How bad was the discrimination towards the South Koreans?
Anyone who gave any assistance to South Korea was killed. Especially those born in Seoul or South Korea had it very hard. They were treated as spies. It was like a scarlet letter, a ‘South Korean sticker’. If you had that you were not treated as a human being. Everyone said a lot of bad things about South Korea and the U.S. Anyone with a bad background was exiled from Pyongyang and sent to remote mountains or mining areas.
Many were taken to concentration camps and ended up dead. The South Korean elites were mostly expelled. Because they said that South Korea attacked us, I thought it to be true. Now everyone in North Korea knows that Kim Il Sung is the one who started the war.