Skip to main content

Veteran POWs recall misery of North Korean captivity

By Diana Magnay, CNN
July 26, 2013 -- Updated 0222 GMT (1022 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lee Soon-sang and his wife reunited after more than half a century
  • Lee was taken prisoner by North after the Korean War (1950-53)
  • Thinking his wife was dead, he remarried and had children in North
  • South Korea has called on Pyongyang to release all servicemen held there

Seoul (CNN) -- Pictured giggling on a park bench, 89-year-old Lee Soon-sang and his wife, Kim Eun-hae, look as though they met just yesterday.

In fact, they married more than 60 years ago. But for half a century, Kim believed her husband was dead, missing in action during the Korean War (1950-53).

Then in August 2004, a telephone call came from China. "I thought someone was trying to make money off me. I got many calls like that over the years from China, but I didn't pay attention," she said.

READ: Chosin: The battle Hollywood overlooked

This was no ordinary call. The voice on the other end of the line shook her to the core. It really was her husband.

Memories of fighting for North Korea
Korean War separates family for 60 years
Orphaned and homeless in North Korea

"I asked, 'Are you really alive?' He answered, 'Yes, I am alive.' Then I asked if he knew so and so, and he did know them. That's how I knew it was real."

When they finally met, they barely recognized each other. "He was so skinny, he was wobbling in," recalled Kim. "I could only recognize his nose."

In contrast Lee couldn't believe how well fed his wife looked. "She looked like one of those landlords from the old days," he said. "And the propaganda, that all South Koreans are starving to death ... that Americans are taking all the rice and only giving back rotten flour ... I only heard this kind of propaganda, so I thought she was dead.

"We just held each other and cried."

Lee Soon-sang had been captured by the North Korean army in 1953, two days before the Armistice was signed. He spent three-and-a-half years in a prisoner of war camp and was then sent to work in the notorious coalmines at Aoji, North Korea -- also a production site for gunpowder. There he had remarried and had children -- though he said he never forgot about life before the war. "Life in North Korea was hard', he said. "So I always thought about my hometown. Even though I believed my wife was dead, I always thought I'd go back one day."

Decades later, in 2004, a "broker" got in touch -- they are middlemen who make their living smuggling people in and out of North Korea. "He told me that Kim Eun-hae and my son were in China with lots of money, that I should take the money and go back to North Korea to live a better life."

Aged 77 by then, he had managed to save up 20,000 North Korean won (approximately US$150) selling cigarettes. "In North Korea, that's a lot of money. You could buy a small house with that. I gave that to my wife and said, 'I'm going to pick acorns, I'll be back in two or three days.' That's how I left."

He said he meant to return. But he never did.

And the propaganda, that all South Koreans are starving to death ... that Americans are taking all the rice and only giving back rotten flour ... I only heard this kind of propaganda, so I thought she was dead.
Lee Soon-sang

He won't talk about the family he left behind. "I'm happy now. You're my wife," he told Kim.

But the bitterness of his choice is a reality for many whose lives and loyalties were split by a divided Korea.

Why the Korean War still matters

Lee attends a lunch organized for prisoners of war like him -- a group of about a dozen men who meet three times a week, all of whom were held captive in the North long after the 1953 Armistice agreement when Pyongyang agreed to return all prisoners of war.

Kim Sung Tae left his adopted daughter behind in North Korea when he fled in 2001. "How can we see each other unless there's reunification?" He's 81. He does not expect to see her again.

He described the terrible hardships of his life in North Korea, especially the six months he spent in a prisoner of war camp. "We were fed just a few hundred grams of grain a day," he recalled. "I would wake up in the morning and grab handfuls of lice from my body. That was normal."

For more than a decade after, his life was spent in a succession of regular prisons, often in solitary confinement in a cell no larger than the size of a crouching man. "When I came back to South Korea, I asked them to take me to a prison here so I could compare. It was like paradise. South Korean prisons treated their prisoners better than North Korea treated their citizens."

According to South Korea's Defense Ministry, 8,343 former servicemen have returned to the South since 1953. Eighty of those men escaped through a third country decades after the Armistice was signed. Based on their testimony, the Seoul government believes there are still some 500 POWs living in the North. Kim Sung Tae feels the government should do more to bring them home.

Recently, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihi-jae repeated his call for North Korea to resolve the issue of former servicemen and other abductees kept by the North. Pyongyang claims they are there of their own free will. And in the absence of actual talks between the two countries, Seoul has little leverage to orchestrate their release.

Men like Lee Soon-sang and Kim Sung Tae are living proof that Pyongyang is wrong. But many Korean war veterans are now well into their eighties -- no longer at an age where fleeing across treacherous borders is particularly feasible. Men whose fate was sealed when they were taken prisoner 60 years ago may never see freedom again.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony that led to the cancellation of a comedy film's release.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0307 GMT (1107 HKT)
President Barack Obama says he doesn't consider North Korea's hack of Sony Pictures "an act of war."
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2243 GMT (0643 HKT)
The U.S. has asked China for help battling North Korean hacking of American information systems, a senior administration official tells CNN.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Alex Gladstein, director of institutional affairs at Human Rights Foundation, says he'd like "to disrupt North Korea and help end the Kim regime's monopoly of knowledge."
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
North Korea's fury over the movie comedy "The Interview" appears to have taken the secretive state's oversensitivity to new extremes.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2336 GMT (0736 HKT)
CNN's Brian Todd looks into the possibility of whether North Korea received help from freelancers or other countries.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0559 GMT (1359 HKT)
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 0543 GMT (1343 HKT)
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 0851 GMT (1651 HKT)
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity", the country declared.
ADVERTISEMENT