Seven decades away from home
The photography was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists, an initiative of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
SEOUL — Home is a complicated place for many survivors of the Korean War.
No one knows how many Koreans were displaced in the lead-up to that conflict, which began when North Korean troops invaded the South on June 25, 1950, and during the three years of fighting. An estimated 1 million to 5 million people were forced to leave their homes. Most thought it would be temporary.
But the war ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a truce, and the division of the peninsula became permanent. Families were separated, most of them forever.
The chaos of war determined on which side of the line families would settle.
At the time of division, the North was richer than the South. But their fates reversed over the following decades: The South evolved into a democracy with a thriving economy, while the North turned to communism and poverty.
Those who fled the North to the South created communities that helped them assimilate and survive. Some of them set up in the capital, Seoul, and other displaced Koreans from the North created Abai Village, a town on the east coast, not far from the border with the North.
Displaced on the Korean Peninsula
Today, the generation that once lived in a unified Korea is fading into a chapter of history. Even Abai Village is turning into a tourist attraction, with few traces left of its origins.
For North Koreans who resettled in the South, the legacy of the war remains a personal and complex one — one that brought trauma, new opportunities, loss, prosperity and longing.
Choi fled Pyongyang in 1951 at age 14. He is now 86.
We evacuated on foot with our mother, hauling all of our belongings. Then my older cousin asked an American soldier to give us a ride.
We were turned around at one point when the roads were closed, and on our route back, I saw my father very briefly. He tossed me his lunch leftovers. Sweet potatoes. I caught them, and then we parted. I never saw him again.
“그때 심정은 말할 것도 없어요.”
“There is no need to say how I felt back then.”
We heard the Chinese were coming, so we made our way to Busan [in the southernmost part of the Korean Peninsula], where we sent my three [younger] siblings to an orphanage. My mother then left back for Pyongyang.
How do I feel when I think about my family? I have no words. I have tried to forget as much as I can, so I can’t think about it. It was difficult enough just to survive on my own. I couldn’t feel stable until I got married in 1967, and got a job.
Lee left Sinuiju in 1947 at age 16. He is now 92.
Kim left Sinuiju in 1947 at age 11. She is now 88.
It was the time of year when red peppers blossomed, the fall of 1947. My sisters, mother and I fled. When my mother told her father-in-law that we are fleeing, he asked her, “Why are you leaving? The Koreas will be united in two years.”
Have you watched “The Sound of Music”? When I watched that movie, it reminded me so much of our route out of North Korea, over the mountains and along the Ryesong River.
“가고 싶어요. 후손들한테 보여주고 싶어요. 고향의 아름다운 것만 지금 남아 있으니까, 머리에.”
“I want to go. I want to show my descendants my homeland. Only the beautiful memories have stayed with me.”
The details have faded as I grew older. Now, at my church, we hold prayer services for North Korean defectors. When I hear their stories, I can sympathize. I suffered like them at the beginning, too. So I pray for reunification.
I felt resentful that I had to leave my home of 15 years. I felt worried and confused as I started my new life in the South, where I knew nobody. [In] 1950, I was recruited as one of about 90 cadets into the South Korean military.
On Oct. 1, which we now celebrate as Armed Forces Day, we crossed the 38th parallel [as the South Korean army counterattacked the North Korean army]. That day, I received a letter from my uncle. It said my father and my mother had both died, and that I should come to Seoul [at the refugee camp] for a little while if I could. It was wartime, but the battalion commander let me go.
On that trip to Seoul, I met her. She had two older sisters, who were both pretty. But they both had partners, so she became my partner.
When it comes to my homeland, I long for it the older I get. I’ve been to many places over the years, but none has felt as good as home.
“지금도 고향은 가라면 기어서도 갈 거예요.”
“I would crawl back home if I could.”
Kim left Sinpo in 1951 at age 12. He is now 84.
We left during the coldest time of year in 1951, during the Jan. 4 retreat [when Chinese and North Korean troops recaptured Seoul]. I had just graduated from fifth grade. When we left the North, I wondered, what am I going to do?
“오히려 여기서는 실향민들이 더 단결심이 강합니다.”
“The displaced people who live here [at Abai Village] have a stronger sense of unity.”
I like it here. South Korea is the best. Sometimes I do wonder if I could go back home. If they open the doors, then I will go. But when will they open?
“I like it here.
South Korea is the best.”
Our people [at Abai Village] here are strong. Our community is tightknit. We educated our children here, sent them to college, and they’re all pursuing their careers in Seoul.
Kim left Sinpo around 1948 at age 21. She is now 96.
I left with my younger brother, because we heard the Chinese army was going to take us away.
“왜 안 그립소? 울기만 했지.”
“Why wouldn’t I miss home? I couldn’t stop crying after I left.”
My brother and I escaped for a chance at life. We would be back when the Koreas were unified. My brother later died of starvation.
I married a fellow displaced North Korean so that it would be easier to go back home together. We built a shack and had seven children — four boys, three girls. I have a lot of history here.
“살아오니 너무 고생하고 살아서 기억도 안 납니다.”
“I’ve suffered so much in life, I remember so little of it.”
Jung left Pongsan county, North Hwanghae province, in 1950 at age 18. He is now 91.
My entire family and I came here. We left behind my grandma and my youngest uncle in Pyongyang. We never heard from them.
It was devastating. As displaced people, we lived a tough life. People discriminated against us just because we came from the North.
When I think of home, I feel a deep longing. I really wish to go back. I’ve never once forgotten about Hwanghae province, my home. I wish for reunification. I desperately wish for North Koreans to find freedom.
“힘들게 살면서 애들을 많이 썼다, 자리 잡으려고.”
“Life was hard, and we struggled so hard to settle down.”
Oh left Pyongyang in 1951 at about 18. He is now 90.
I left with three of my friends. I had two older sisters and I’m the only son, so it was a sad goodbye. But I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in three months.” Those three months turned into 70 years.
It’s not even worth getting into it anymore. There’s no use in thinking about the wisdom to pass down to future generations. Everyone I knew has died. In the South, we live as we want, and in North Korea, it’s completely, well, it’s not even worth discussing. What I want to remember about being displaced is now a complete zero. It’s zero, my ties to North Korea.
There is nothing to say anymore. I have no words. Reunification will be difficult in my lifetime.
Lee fled Ryongchon county, North Pyongan province, in 1946 at age 3. She is now 80.
Park fled Pyongyang in 1951 at age 13. He is now 85.
It was early December. The river was frozen, and you could see 50 people pile onto a boat that only fit 20. It would sink into the ice. We couldn’t get on the boat after seeing that. We were desperate, so we started walking along the railroad.
People were piled on top of freight train cars, and when the train entered a tunnel, they would fall off and die. The first dead body I saw scared me. But after stepping over a few of them, they weren’t scary anymore. We saw those dead bodies the 15 days it took for us to walk to Seoul.
I am a displaced person. A displaced person with no homeland.