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2ID KATUSA Escapes Captivity in N. Korea

Some translation is appropriate for non-military readers: KATUSA means Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army, and 2ID means Second Infantry Division, a brigade of which remains stretched out in an arc perpendicular to the Northern approaches to Seoul. Hundreds of KATUSAs still serve with U.S. Army units there today, but the first KATUSAs served during the Korean War. Here’s what happened to one of them:

Lee participated in the Korean War after enlisting in August 1950 as a Korea auxiliary with the U.S. Army. He was assigned to K Company, 38 Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. In December of the same year, he was taken captive by Chinese forces around Gaecheon-gun in Pyongnam.

Based on the accounts of other defectors, one can imagine that Lee’s life in the North was hard. Still, he seems to have believed the party line that things were just as bad in the South:

News from his family in South Korea reached him one day when he was leading a difficult life with a family in the Nanam area, Cheongjin City, Hambuk. A North Korea defection guide had come to see Lee in June of 2004.

Lee made arrangements to meet his family in South Korea in China, and left with his wife Kim Sang-ok, who is now deceased, but they failed to go through a checkpoint in Hoeryeong-gun, and had to return. Lee attempted once more to go to China, but failed again, and in late August by secretly getting close to the border patrol guards, he succeeded in crossing to China on his third try.

At a point, Lee refused his South Korean family’s suggestion to come to South Korea citing, “I can’t go to an impoverished and famished South Korea . . . .

Lee seems to have been straightened out on that matter, because he arrived in the South three months later. The rest of the family had to make five separate attempts over more than a year to get out. The last two of them finally arrived at Incheon Airport this week.

Lee is not the first ex-POW (held by North Korea in flagrant violation of the 1953 Armistice) to escape to the South to tell the tale. James Brooke of the New York Times previously wrote about the return of Jang Moo-Hwan and Nam Tae-Kyo. I heard two others, whose names I’ve been asked not to print, speak on Capitol Hill last year (they’re different people from those written about in the other articles). Others, such as Private Han Man-Taek, were not as lucky. Han was caught by the Chinese and sent back to the North, also in flagrant violation of the Armistice. South Korea raised a token peep and then forgot the whole thing.

Life in the South hasn’t been without its tragedies, either. Lee’s wife died in a traffic accident last November, just months before the family was finally reunited. But what is his reaction to finally seeing the rest of his family safely out of the world’s largest open-air prison?

“I will have no regrets, even if I die now,” said ex-Korean War prisoner of war (POW) Lee Gi-chun (75) on March 31, when he heard that his youngest daughter Lee Bok-hee, 33, and grandchildren Kim Sun-gun, 2, and Koh Il-hyuk, 3, reached Korea safely at Incheon International Airport.

I hope the Division Commanding General decides to pay Mr. Lee a visit.