Asia-Pacific

Korean War: one woman's story

Undated image of Bo-ok Park, with her husband
Image caption Bo-ok Park fled North Korea at the age of 22

As the two Koreas mark the outbreak of the 1950-1953 Korean War, Jae-youn Lee, a company intern in Seoul and Sogang University student, talks to her grandmother about what she experienced and the legacy of the conflict.

My maternal grandmother Bo-ok Park moved from the north to the south one year before the Korean War started. My grandfather's family was importing timber from Japan. It was a big company and the family was very rich.

After the 38th parallel was chosen to separate the two countries, the Reds started killing rich people and taking their money. So rich people had to flee to South Korea to save their lives.

My grandfather had a passport and he could cross the 38th parallel easily. He escaped first. My grandmother had to flee in secret. She had a really tough journey. She got captured by the North Korean army and kept in a detention centre for a month. They fed her soup made of water, salt and grain.

The detention centre was a big hall. There was a line on the floor separating the men from the women. The space was too small and it was impossible for them to lie down. So people slept as they were sitting.

After her release, she tried to go to South Korea again. There was a guide who knew the way to South Korea over the mountains, river and sea. She slept during the day, travelling at night until she reached the sea. She then waited for the tide and crossed the sea on foot. That is how she made it to South Korea.

Firing squad

One year later, the Korean War broke out. She was living in Seoul, which fell to the North. She had to hide the fact that she was from the North. Every young man was forcibly conscripted to the North Korean army, including my grandfather. But he dodged it: he did not eat for two weeks and got pneumonia.

She remembered that one day the North Korean army asked a child on the street whether it knew anyone from the South Korean army. The child pointed towards the house of a South Korean army surgeon. All men from that house were executed by firing squad.

The dead bodies were piled up on the road towards the market. They were left there for more than a month to create fear.

My grandmother's father had died when she was at high school. She was living together with her mother and her grandmother as well as brothers and a sister.

There were many people from the north trying to escape to the south. If they got caught, they got killed.

So the family decided to move only one or two people at a time to lower the risk. They started with the oldest brother to the youngest. The last one to leave was my grandmother's mother.

She had to stay last to be with her old mother. But when she left, the border at the 38th parallel was closed, so she did not make it. The wife, sons and daughters of one of her brothers also did not make it to the south.

'Want to go home'

My grandmother and her brothers have been trying to make contact with their family in the north since 1995. Finally, in 1997, a message was received through a tourist who visited North Korea. The message was from her brother's son's daughter, Hwa-sun.

Image caption Bo-ok Park received this image of her mother from North Korea in 2005

Hwa-sun went as a tourist to North Korea's border with China. She had also been trying to contact her relatives in the South.

Those members of the family who remained in North Korea were banished to live in a mountain because their relatives escaped to the South.

Members of the family died of hunger in their exile. My great-grandmother used to pray to God for the happiness of all the brothers in the South. She told Hwa-sun: "You should go to South Korea, and achieve your dreams there."

After getting Hwa-sun's message, my grandmother's brother tried to rescue her, and Hwa-sun finally entered South Korea in 2005.

My grandmother told me that her life was full of pain and sorrow. She endured much humiliation under Japanese rule. After that she suffered the pain of the war. After the war she had to work to support her family. So she did not know the meaning of happiness before the age of 60.

Almost everyone from her generation who has memories of the war still gnash their teeth in anger. They were robbed of their money - and of their youth.

They were not the real communists, she says. They were just Reds. They killed the intellectuals, the real communists. They did not care about equality, they cared only about their personal benefit.

She really hopes for unification. She said with tears in her eyes: "If the two Koreas are reunified, I would want to go to my hometown where I grew up and where my parents are buried."

Old wound

Nowadays, there are no real patriots in South Korea, she feels. Both right and left are just fighting for their own benefit.

She said she prefers the hard-line approach towards the north because the "Sunshine [Policy - of opening up the North through bilateral economic engagement]" is only good for the North Korean leaders. The long-suffering, starved people in the North make her heart break.

I talked a lot with my grandmother and we cried together. I've heard short episodes about her life and the war before. But this was the first time I heard the whole story told with genuine sincerity.

There is a lack of understanding between the two generations - the older one who lived through the war and the younger one. To tell the truth, my generation does not care about unification. It is just a burden to be added to the high taxation.

War is not just our past. It is our nation's old wound. Because of our older generation's effort we lead a rich life.

North and South Korea share the same language and same history. Our country was divided not by our own device, but by the struggle between the communist and capitalist powers. So we have to achieve peaceful unification.

I prefer [former President] Kim Dae-jong's way. I think the Sunshine Policy can save life in the north and open the minds of the North Koreans.

After talking to my grandmother I understand why the elderly are always complaining and I have more empathy for our modern history. And I will think better about our future.