Asia | Out of North Korea: A story of loss, escape, and renewal

Out of North Korea: A story of loss, escape, and renewal

Edward Oh March 30, 2017 5:42 AM (UTC+8)
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My father was born in what was back then the northeast port city of Songjin, located in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province. Today, it is known by the less mellifluous tag of Kimchaek, so named during the middle of the Korean War after the eponymous North Korean anti-Japanese partisan, general, and political ally of Kim Il Sung. It would be about a 6.5-hour drive northeast from downtown Pyongyang, were one lucky enough to actually own a car. My grandfather was a Protestant pastor, and his young ministry took him to various cities in the North, including stints in Pyongyang (the capital) where the family eventually settled, the now-resort town of Wonsan (known for its gorgeous beaches and some of the Kim dynasty’s swankiest estates), and the aforementioned city of Songjin.

My grandfather’s time in the ministry happened to coincide with the latter period of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, which lasted from about 1910 until the empire’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945. Practicing the Christian faith at that time was not exactly a sanctioned activity, though it came to be considered a badge of nationalistic honor and resistance against Japan’s imperialist efforts to spread the practice of Shintoism among its captive charges as a means of colonial control and cultural sublimation. Japanese authorities had shuttered all official operations of the religious organizations operating in Korea at that time, but provincial overseers often still allowed people to gather in churches to worship.

The family made a fateful decision

When the Japanese retreated at the end of the war and Stalin installed the apparatus that would eventually make way for the rise of Kim Il Sung, Christians saw the writing on the wall, migrating southward to the UN-controlled half of the peninsula below the 38th parallel. While the majority of Christians wisely chose to flee, a minority, which included my grandfather and his family, stayed behind for a variety of reasons. For my grandfather, it was to help mind property in Pyongyang owned by family members already living in Seoul. It was a fateful decision.

It is fascinating to ponder that, until his eventual escape, my father actually lived under the banner of the Soviet-endorsed regime Kim Il Sung was setting up on land he would eventually turn into his personal, twisted fiefdom. He attended school during the nascent days of the North’s then proto-propaganda program. Soviet songs and traditional communist doctrine mixed with celebrations of a new iconography centered on the supposed exploits of the young Marshall Kim Il Sung. North Korean propaganda had not yet attained the hagiographic heights of the post-war years.

It is also heartbreaking to consider the cloud of fear that must have enveloped every waking moment of my grandfather’s days, knowing, as he must have, the extreme danger he was in as a minister of the Gospel in a country where the regime set out to reset history, itself, and fabricate a new creation myth around Kim Il Sung. That fear, however, would not prevent him from trying to sate his thirst for information during the days just before the outbreak of the Korean War.

In those early years of the Kim dynasty, people of faith were still allowed to congregate publicly in churches to worship, though they were forbidden from meeting privately in homes, due to concern that such gatherings would be incubators of rebellion against the new regime. It was during a break in one of these verboten private prayer sessions that my grandfather gathered with a number of other attendees to surreptitiously listen to a South Korean radio broadcast which was, of course, an outlawed activity. A regime informant reported him, and he was soon arrested and imprisoned, never to be seen alive again.

A peculiar characteristic of many totalitarian regimes is their obsession for the banalities of bureaucratic record keeping, a necessary lever for exercising total control over the minutiae of government affairs and the activities of a captive citizenry. The North Korean regime was no different, maintaining meticulous records of everything. One of those records was a daily public ledger of jailed prisoners housed in their detention centers. Checking that log regularly is how my grandmother kept tabs on her imprisoned husband. My grandfather’s name would appear on that log every day — until, one day, it didn’t.

My grandmother feared the worst, but also resigned herself to it. Still, she was anguished by the unknown. Begging to know what had happened to my grandfather, she was eventually led by a regime apparatchik to a site where he had been buried in a mass grave with other executed prisoners; however, she wasn’t allowed to inspect the grave to identify and claim her husband’s remains. In hindsight, expedience would seem to at least partly explain why my grandfather and other prisoners were the victims of such an abrupt and arbitrary massacre by the regime. Mere days later, Kim Il Sung lit the fires of invasion that would engulf the entire peninsula in war.

Escape from the North was the only alternative

When the allies made their counter-push north later that year — a campaign which eventually drove Kim Il Sung’s Korean People’s Army to the banks of the Yalu River — my grandmother took in some allied soldiers who sought overnight shelter before continuing their pursuit northward the next day. Seizing the opportunity afforded by the chaos of the North Korean army’s retreat, she went back to that gravesite with my father to look for my grandfather’s body. She had to wade through the corpses of about 15 dead prisoners, all with cotton stuffed in their mouths. She had to look past his unrecognizable and decomposed body to positively identify him from his teeth. At that moment, my grandmother knew that there was no future for her or her family in North Korea. They had to escape.

When United Nations troops were forced back down the peninsula by Mao’s peasant army, which had entered the war to rescue Kim Il Sung from his ill-conceived reunification gambit and to prevent a US-led encroachment on its border, my family miraculously encountered the same soldiers they had boarded during the allies’ earlier march north. My grandmother’s kindness then turned into her family’s salvation, as she and her brood were offered a ride with the retreating convoys that soon crossed the Tae-dong River on makeshift bridges set down by the UN forces.

Once my family reached the Partition Line, they hitched a ride atop trains commandeered to carry UN forces southward. Straining to hold on and maintain balance, my father watched in horror as refugees who could not fight off fatigue fell asleep and rolled off the roof of the moving train car and into the darkness on either side. Such wartime accidents usually did not happen to those traveling as families, as all members would look out for one another to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for.  My father’s family clung tightly to one another, safely escaping all the way down to the southern port city of Busan before eventually being temporarily relocated even farther south to Jeju Island until the war’s end.

Years later, during the period of post-Armistice rebuilding and industrial development, my father met my mother in Seoul where my mother was attending nursing school and where my father was working nearby. The war and my father’s escape from the North paved the fortuitous path on which they would eventually meet, thus making their marriage — and me — very much the unintended by-products of Kim Il Sung’s war against the Korean people.

My grandfather’s death at the hands of Kim Il Sung’s regime set up a trajectory of events that would lead my family to their ultimate deliverance. The arc of fate would eventually carry them to America, among a wave of Korean immigrants that would settle in the US during the ’60s and ’70s. They built a new future for themselves in the homeland of those American heroes who, as inscribed at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, “answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

My father never talked about his refugee past much less the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s demise at the hands of the Kim regime. He is part of what one might refer to as Korea’s Greatest Generation whose ranks include not just the brave soldiers of the war, but also the quietly courageous survivors of one of the 20th Century’s most horrific and massive man-made catastrophes. Years would pass before I even mustered the courage to ask about the circumstances of my grandfather’s death and my father’s wartime experiences. He has always found an enduring refuge in his stoicism, while consistently resisting any pull towards self-pity.

Three generations of punishment

As I follow the events today in North Korea, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that Kim Jong Un — this third-generation despot now threatening the security of the region and the peace of the world — is the grandson of the tyrant whose reign of terror directly led to my grandfather’s death. The fact that he was not just a collateral casualty of an awful war, but was specifically targeted by the Kim regime, makes his death especially offensive to me. It is the most personal of violations against my family’s dignity to know that Kim Jong Un’s grandfather was directly responsible for robbing me of a relationship with my own grandfather.

My family’s tale is surely the tragic, never-told story of so many other families from that time. What provides me succor, however, is knowing how blessed I am to live as a beneficiary of the human spirit’s instinctive yearning for life, hope, and freedom. I believe this fire burns inside the collective heart of the North Korean people today.

Kim Il Sung is notorious for instituting what is known as “three generations of punishment,” a system of murder and repression without precedent in the annals of totalitarian evil where the children and grandchildren of an enemy of the regime are also marked for death or banishment to prison camps. While in no way comparable to the hellish deprivations suffered to this day by the Kim regime’s direct victims, the impact of the crime the Kim dynasty perpetrated on my family almost exactly 67 years ago has reached through time to touch even me as the third generation progeny of my grandfather’s legacy. Yet, in the end, the darkly ironic truth is that it is the three rulers of the Kim dynasty, itself, who have been the Korean people’s three generations of punishment.

For the sake of their children and grandchildren’s futures, may this third generation of Kim be the last.

Edward Oh
Edward Oh is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. He has studied North Korean political history, propaganda, and human rights issues, as well as inter-Korean relations, for over a decade. His interest in North Korea was sparked by stories of his family's escape from the North during the Korean War. He has published articles on the role of North Korea's ideology and propaganda in its nuclear program.
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