Voices from the Grave

This is a story that should start with a description of how it ended. Other than a few well-connected activists, most of those in the room had been a select group–congressional staffers, think-tankers, diplomats, attaches from embassies . . . even Nelson Mandela’s nephew, a pleasant enough man, now wearing the uniform of a general. Before the event had even begun, one bored staffer had whined to another, “I’m sooooooo ready for the weekend. When the two men we had come to hear had finished telling us their stories, the people in the room split off into knots and cliques. “I hear he’s retiring after the next term. “It’s never getting out of committee. “I’m sorry, I know I remember you from somewhere. “I’ll e-mail you.

The small old woman and I were two of the few “ordinary” and undistinguished ones who didn’t belong to any other group, and as I left to go back to my son, more thankful than I had ever been that he was just an hour away, the woman asked me the way out of the labyrinth known as the Rayburn House Office Building. She must have been almost eighty and walked slowly, with difficulty. She needed my help to descend the steps to the street, even as she insisted that she could find her bus by herself, and that she didn’t need a cab. She was there for her brother–not the two who had served in World War II, or one who had been wounded in Viet Nam–but for the one who had never come home from Korea. The one who had been reported captured and who was never heard from again. I looked at her face and tried to imagine the face of the scared young American in the captivity of men hardened by war, and for an instant, I thought I saw him, innocent and vulnerable to a hundred reaching fingers of death in a cold, hungry, angry place–one that would never mark his grave or record the final moments of his humanity for those who would spend the next five decades seeking them.

And still, she hoped, for she had heard that one of the Korean men who had escaped that same hell had seen six Americans in August 1953, after the war had ended and was bringing prisoners of all sides back home across the Bridge of No Return. Indeed, the man did say he saw them, but had told us little else. He didn’t describe speaking to them, hearing them speak to others, or their features, clothing, or patches. The woman and I were both disappointed not to know more, but my own disappointment must have been nothing compared to hers. She had been active in the National Alliance of Families and obviously devoted years of her life to finding him. Listening to her, she clearly believed that he could still be alive. Anything is possible, of course, but the odds must surely be against anyone surviving fifty years in what is arguably the world’s cruelest place.

* * * * *

But of course, we had come to hear voices from the grave today, proving that the dead do speak. I won’t tell you their names, because they still have friends, perhaps even family, in the North. For the same reason, I won’t post the pictures I took today. I’ll call these two men C and K instead.

* * * * *

That being said, I wish I could show you C’s face. One look at the man and you understood how he’d made it. He stood like a statue of inextinguishable dignity and spoke with a quaking-yet-strong voice that seemed to have endured a thousand horrors just for the chance to tell everyone in that room, me, and you what he lived through and what it means for us. He told us that it was his duty to expose what he had seen and lived through, and he thanked us for coming to hear it, as if this chance to tell us what he had seen was his last remaining reason for having clung so stubbornly to life for so long. His next words were his heartfelt thanks to the U.S. Congress for passing the North Korean Human Rights Act, and to the American people for the lives they gave for the defense of his country.

C graduated from high school near Seoul in 1950 and entered one of Korea’s most prestigious universities. Two months later, North Korea invaded the South. C did not say how he survived until December, when U.N. forces reentered Seoul, but that month, he entered the Korean Military Cadet School and began a crash training program that ended just four months later, in April 1951, with his graduation and commissioning as a second lieutenant. C soon found himself at the front, assigned to an infantry division.

C’s military career was not a lengthy one. On May 19th, just a month after his graduation, he was taken prisoner of the Chinese Army. After making it through the summer and what must have been a harsh winter, in 1952 he found himself before a North Korean military court, which sentenced him to thirteen years of hard labor at a remote labor camp. For most who shared C’s fate, it would be a slow death sentence without the luxury of finality.

C spent those first thirteen years in the camp without a pillow, a blanket, underwear, or socks. He had nothing but his prisoner’s garb to keep him from freezing. There was no razor for shaving, no water for bathing or washing. An oil drum was the communal toilet. By the age of forty, C had lost all of his teeth. The camp was, he said, “a heaven for the fleas and ticks,” but hell for the men who lived and died there. The primary causes of death were starvation and disease–all of the other four officers POWs who shared C’s post-armistice captivity died there–but some were executed. Executions generally took place outside the camp, in front of members of the public, including family members of the condemned.

In 1964, C completed his military sentence and was sent to the first of two civilian mines where he worked. It was here that he took his first bath in thirteen years. He was still a forced laborer in a mine 1994, when he must have been in his late sixties, in a country where thousands were already dying of famine. It was then that C somehow escaped, though he told us agonizingly little of how he managed to become the first South Korean POW to get out of North Korea after the war’s end. He returned to the Republic of Korea in October 1995.

* * * * *

It was hard to tell where C’s descriptions of his camp life ended and those of North Korean society in general began, just as it often seems to an outsider that all parts of North Korea are different levels of security in one vast prison. C appears to have had little contact with the world outside of his camp until 1964. Even on the “outside,” North Korean society as C described it tolerated no form of dissent, criticism, or religious belief. He reported that from early childhood, North Koreans were taught that Americans were sub-human, like animals with two legs, or hyenas. His final comment was to call South Korea’s abstention from the U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution on North Korea “shameful and embarrassing.

* * * * *

K was drafted into the South Korean Army in 1952, and was wounded and taken prisoner by the Chinese 11 months later, in July 1953. On the 27th of that same month, the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed. The following month, K was released from a Chinese military hospital and sent to a prison camp. It is here that K reports seeing six Americans, although again, the details are unclear. First, K gave no physical description of the men. Second, he reports no contact with them that could corroborate such details as names, home towns, or units. Finally, he reports seeing the men in August 1953, which was within the 60 days permitted for the repatriation of prisoners under Article III, paragraph 51(a). From the little detail we have, it is entirely possible that the men were repatriated as required, or even that they were not American, or even allied, prisoners.

If there is doubt about who K saw in August 1953, there is little doubt about North Korean non-compliance with the armistice. K remained in his prison camp until 1956, when he was transferred to a mine. He worked in the mines for 36 years until 1992, when he had reached an age when most men would be retiring from such a difficult and dangerous occupation. Mining takes a high toll from rock falls, asphyxiation, explosions, and working around heavy equipment. K survived all these hazards under the most dangerous conditions imaginable, without safety equipment or training. Did I mention that he did this with one leg and one eye?

Why not simply return the prisoners as agreed? K describes an order numbered “143” by Kim Il-Sung that became a household term in parts of North Korea, and which ordered the retention of thousands of South Korean prisoners for reconstruction labor. Unlike the North Korean forced laborers who toiled beside them, a “143” or his family members were never eligible for rehabilitation to government jobs and party membership. Nonetheless, K reports that the discrimination against “143’s” was slightly relaxed many years after the end of the war.

Like C, K reports having little to eat and surviving horrific working conditions. A meal generally consisted of watery cabbage soup with a handful of millet. Conditions worsened dramatically in the 1990s. K reports that North Korea’s public distribution system ceased to function for most of the population in 1992, but that miners continued to receive rations to sustain them through their hard labor. This corresponds to when, according to Dr. Andrei Lankov, the regime began telling people to eat two meals per day. K reports that mass starvation began in his area in 1993 and 1994.

From 1992 to 1995, K worked at a farm, and does not report working thereafter. In July of 2000, he escaped into China.

* * * * *

Both C and K were angry that their government had forgotten the cause for which they fought and the nature of the regime that caused their suffering. K was particularly bitter that South Korea had grown prosperous and forgotten that the suffering of his generation at the hand of men like the North Koreans had made it possible. Yet he was humble enough to apologize that he and his fellow soldiers had failed in their duty to unite the country. This was one of several emotional moments as we heard from these men, and not a few of the Koreans in the audience were wiping away tears. Such men deserve better than to be forgotten, but they were. Hundreds of their comrades allegedly remain behind in North Korea while the South Korean government fails to make their release a condition of continued trade and aid.

Contrast this with the extraordinary lengths to which the United States government will sometimes to go recover a few bone fragments from a long-lost crash site, it is astonishing that South Korea simply tolerates this with hardly a word of protest.

My thoughts return to the old woman whose hopeful search for her missing brother will go on. He is a man whose name I may never know, and who may never be found, but whom I will never forget. Later, as my son blissfully ate the Happy Meal I’d promised him that morning, I thought of the men who had made it possible to enjoy our small ration of decadence.

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Actual post date: April 23, 2005