But without North Korea’s cooperation, Lee said, the South has little recourse to retrieve its soldiers. Lee said that, realistically, the POWs have only one way to return home: They have to escape.
Hopes that withered
So far, about 80 have.
They gather for annual dinners in the South, and some meet for regular card games. They’ve been given overdue medals and overdue apologies. They’ve testified about the POWs they know who are still in the North. They’ve shaken hands with the president. They’ve received major compensation payments — about $10,000 per month, over five years.
The returnees have encountered all varieties of surprise, both bitter and grand, as a half-dozen of them described in recent interviews. One escapee, Lee Won-sam, was married just before the war and reunited with his wife 55 years later. But many left families in the North only to find alienation in the South. The POWs, like others in the North, were told for decades that the South was impoverished and decrepit — and their arrival in the South revealed the extent of that deception while also dropping them into incomprehensible prosperity. A handful lost money in frauds, South Korean officials say.
“I thought South Korea had lots of beggars under the bridge and everybody lived in shacks,” said Lee Gyu-il, 80, who escaped in 2008.
Many escapees say that after the war, they were initially hopeful that the South would secure their return. That hope withered in 1956, when the North assembled the prisoners and told them about Cabinet Order 143, which turned them into North Korean citizens — albeit those of the lowest rank. They were told to be thankful that they had been welcomed into a virtuous society.
“Sadly, there was no real change in our daily lives,” Yoo Young-bok, who escaped in 2000, wrote in his memoir, which has been translated into English. “We went right on toiling” in the mines.
‘He lived a false life’
Those who have escaped acknowledge their luck. It wasn’t easy for them to flee. Some had to travel for days through the North and then dart across a river forming the border with China — at an age when some had trouble running. Brokers helped guide them but also charged them more than the going rate for defectors, knowing that the escapees would receive large payments after settling in the South.
They know a few who are still stranded in the North. Most of the former prisoners have died from mining accidents, disease, execution, famine and old age.
In Lee Jae-won’s case, it was liver cancer. It was 1994, and he was 63. After being captured by the Chinese and handed to the North, he had worked for four decades in a mine at the northernmost point of the peninsula, near the Russian border. He’d married a woman with one eye — a fellow member of the hostile class — and had four children, all of whom were ridiculed by teachers and classmates for their family background.
But only as Lee’s health deteriorated in his final months did he tell his children, for the first time, the details of his earlier life. He gave one son, Lee Ju-won, the names of family members in the South, as well as an address: the home in which he was raised.
“So after I buried him, I decided to go there,” Lee Ju-won said.
It took him 15 years to defect. Two days after Lee Ju-won was given his South Korean citizenship, he traveled to his family’s home town, Boeun. His relatives still owned the original property, though the home had been demolished and rebuilt.
During that visit, Lee Ju-won learned that his family had celebrated his father’s birthday every year and always set aside a rice ball for him at the New Year’s feast. He also discovered his father’s letter from Paju, written weeks before the armistice, which a relative had saved.
Lee Ju-won learned that his father, before the war, had been rebellious and talkative — characteristics he stifled in the North, though he passed them on to his son.
“It turns out my dad was a lot like me, though he didn’t show it,” Lee Ju-won said. “He was admired in North Korea, because he worked hard and didn’t do anything wrong. But he lived a false life. He knew one slip of the tongue could harm our whole family. So he never talked about South Korea.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.