SEOUL — His last night in North Korea was spent huddled in a kitchen. The homeowner had taken pity on the throngs fleeing the war who were piling up in Hungnam port with nowhere else to go.
It was intensely cold that December night in 1950. That’s what Sohn Dong-hun remembers most: trying to stay warm wrapped in only a light jacket. He scrounged whatever food he could scrape from tin cans plucked from the trash.
The next morning, a few ships were about to head south. Here was a last chance for Sohn and anyone else trying to escape advancing Chinese-backed forces, which had sent units under the U.N. flag — including U.S. and South Korean troops — into a hasty retreat.
Sohn, then 20, managed to reach the deck of a Japanese cargo vessel. It plowed through terrible winter seas until, at midnight on Christmas Day, it reached Geoje Island near the southern city of Busan. Church bells were ringing.
One of the biggest evacuations of the Korean War, known in South Korea as the “Christmas miracle,” was drawing to a close. More than 100,000 civilians — and about the same number of troops — were taken south on ships from Hungnam during several frantic days that December.
Today, perhaps 10 times that number or more — at least 1 million South Koreans — have some family link to those carried on the Hungnam boatlift, according to South Korean war refugee groups. They include the current president, Moon Jae-in, whose parents were on the ships.
Now, the elderly survivors of the Hungnam flotilla hope openings between Moon’s government and North Korea could allow them to cross the border for the first time in nearly 68 years.
“I want to go to my hometown and visit the graves of my mother, my grandfather, my ancestors, and pay my respects,” said Sohn, 88, a retired professor of pharmacology in Seoul. “I hope to do this before I die.”
So far, the North has offered only tightly controlled reunification gatherings for families separated by the war. A week of reunions began Aug. 20 at a North Korean resort on Mount Kumgang, just over the demilitarized zone. It marks the first such events since reunifications were halted in 2015 to protest nuclear tests by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
There are no close relatives left in the North for Sohn, whose family portraits cover the wall in an apartment he shares with his wife, Kim Myo-hee. But there is still a pull to the North. It gets stronger each year.
As for many of the so-called Hungnam generation, time is running out to see the North one more time.
Meanwhile, they tell their recollections for oral history projects, at family gatherings and ceremonies to remember the boatlift.
Sohn’s story begins with the Communist land grabs after Kim Il Sung’s forces took control after World War II. The state seized the small farms held by Sohn’s family in Bukcheong, not far from the Sea of Japan. Sohn, who has a license as a state veterinarian, was assigned to a government research facility in Pyongyang.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the staff at the research labs were ordered to evacuate to the north. Sohn broke ranks and headed off on his own, walking two weeks to reach his home. His parents were overjoyed. They had presumed he was dead.
About the same time, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River to aid their ally Kim. It shifted the balance in the war. Outgunned U.N.-led forces pulled back. Sohn’s house was no longer a safe haven for fighting-age men, who could either be forcibly conscripted or killed by the North’s military.
Sohn, his father and uncle struck out to the east. Sohn’s mother, grandmother and younger siblings stayed behind. The plan was for the three men to hole up in Hunhung, not far from the port of Hungnam. Sohn and the others believed the U.N. forces would eventually launch a counteroffensive, and they could follow it back home.
Instead, it became clear that the U.N. troops were retrenching to the south. Hundreds of thousands of people clogged the road toward Hungnam, hoping to get on any vessels in the retreating flotilla heading south. The Sohn trio joined them, fearful this could be the last chance at escape. In the bedlam, Sohn became separated from his father and uncle.
“I was totally on my own,” he said. “All I could do was keep walking and try to find a ship.”
On Dec. 19 — after four days in Hungnam — Sohn made his way onto the Japanese merchant ship Tobadamaru. A few days later, the SS Meredith Victory was one of the last ships out, carrying 14,000 people in a vessel built to carry 60.
For six days, Sohn joined thousands of others huddled on the open deck. The salt spray crusted on their skin. The vomit from seasickness froze in place. At least four people died, he recalled. Their bodies were tossed into the sea.
Weeks later, Sohn somehow found his father, who made it to the South on a small boat. But his uncle didn’t make it out. Neither did the rest of Sohn’s family.
In August 1990, Sohn and his South Korean-born children took a hike near the border with the North. Sohn did not know at the time whether his mother was still alive.
He turned north and yelled into the wind: “Mother!”
Joyce Lee contributed to this report.