“Kim Il-sung introduced us,” Lim Ok-ryeon, 82, says laughing as she enters the home she shares with her husband Seo In-gyu, 88. They met in 1956 in Mokpo after the Korean War forced both of them out of their hometowns; Lim from a small village near the 38th Parallel; Seo from Naju, a city in the southern province of Jeollanamdo.
“His aunt went to the same church as me so we exchanged photos of each other. That’s how we met,” Lim says.
While Seo and Lim are happily married now, they experienced the war very differently; Lim, spent many nights sleeping in a cave for safety, lost her brother to North Korean soldiers and returned to the north for her mother, while Seo spent the war fighting alongside the US army in search of intelligence.
July 27, 2016 marks the 63rd anniversary of the end of the Korean War, when a permanent line was drawn dividing the peninsula into the communist North and the democratic South. While the armistice ended the bloodshed, it separated families for generations to come and birthed a secretive state that has survived on fear and indoctrination. For Lim, the idea of a permanently divided Korean peninsula didn’t seem real until after she fled.
Lim was a 17-year-old student when the war broke out on June 25, 1950. It wasn’t unusual to hear gunfire in her town as the hostility between the North and South was well known. That morning, she took shelter in a purpose-built hole under her house with her parents, two sisters and brother until the blasts stopped. Soon she realized this was much more serious.
Lim’s village was on the way to Seoul, with North Korean soldiers frequently passing through, stopping to load weapons and supplies onto their wagons and donkeys. “North Korean soldiers would capture normal people, including civil soldiers on the street, and put them into trucks. My brother, who was 22 years old at the time, was out and was taken away by them,” Lim says. They later found out that he was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Geoje Island, south of Busan. “My brother was a patriot and I guess he joined the rebel forces and ended up being killed. He has not been heard from since,” she says.
Soon after, an attack on the North meant that her village became too dangerous to stay in. Her family fled to Gaepunggun, a town about four kilometers away which became a refuge area for people fleeing. With little food, they waited until things calmed down before returning to their village only to be forced out again.
It was a few months into the war when Seo, 24 at the time, went to the south-western city of Daegu. The government headquarters had been temporarily relocated there from Seoul and Seo was accompanying his father, an elected member of parliament, who had to attend a meeting. At the same time, the US army was in the area looking for a Korean-English interpreter. Seo approached them and was then asked to join them on the frontline. With his fathers approval, he accepted the job and three days later he became the first Korean to work with the US Army 2nd Division Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) during the war.
His job brought him into some brutal situations: sleepless nights, pulling corpses from a river, and witnessing friends die in battle.
It wasn’t long before Seo found himself in a city north of Pyongyang, North Korea looking for military intelligence when bombs began to fall. For three days, he and his comrades retaliated against a Chinese attack from a hole they dug in a mountain. There was no time to rest; just the constant sound of gunfire in what Seo describes as “the most critical fighting” he has ever witnessed.
“We were surrounded by them,” he recalls. “Continually day and night they came over to us.” After the third day of fighting, they were saved by the arrival of British soldiers who fought back enough to secure a safe passage out for those who could make it.
“So many friends, so many US army soldiers died,” he says. “Some of them, I am still thinking …” his voice trails off. Even though some details have been lost to the years, Seo describes the brutality of the war through the friends he lost and the soldiers that died. The loss of life is a painful memory that isn’t easy to forget.
With almost three years in the same division, Seo developed the type of kinship with his comrades that can only be achieved through living a shared experience. They gave him the nickname “Joy” because, as Seo puts it, his name is “difficult to pronounce for American people.” When talking about the sense of comradeship they shared, he can’t help but feel sad thinking about how many of them actually died during the war.
Lim returned to Gaepunggun for a second time after Chinese forces retook Seoul in January 1951. The area was full of refugees. With little food and money, she sold her clothes in order to feed her family. At night, she slept in a hole in a mountain near the house they were staying in because it felt safer. Chinese soldiers combed the area and took what they needed, but when they approached Lim and her sisters, their attitude changed. “The young soldiers who went to the house I was staying in were nice, saying they were from Shanghai and sometimes offering food. The reason I think is they tried to look good to us,” Lim says. “I realized not all Chinese soldiers were mean,” she says.
Lim spent the winter there. Her father left for Gangwha Island, west of Gaepunggun, to find work and she soon followed with her sisters. Her mother stayed behind, thinking that the family would return once the war ended. Lim and her sisters walked about 12 kilometers to a quayside where they took a boat to Gangwha Island to meet their father. North Korean soldiers were active in the area – if they had been caught, they would have been killed.
Bad news greeted them on their arrival; there was talk of an end to the war which would result in a permanent divide between the North and South. Faced with the possibility of never seeing her mother again Lim made the journey back to Gaepunggun. She was one of the only two people on the boat heading north. “After getting off the boat, I was lost. I kept walking towards the North, praying to God, not knowing even where I was,” she says. Her mother was surprised to see her. The next morning they made their way to the quay and were soon reunited with her father and sisters on Gangwha Island. Soon, she and her family took the boat to Inchon and arrived in Mokpo in August 1953 where they began the difficult challenge of rebuilding their lives.
“We led a wretched life,” she says. “Barely made ends meet. My father started a rag business at the market on a very small scale for a living. That’s how refugees lived. Everybody suffered,” she says.
As Lim started to rebuild her life, Seo was preparing to end his time with the US army. Throughout our interview, he describes his time with the CIC through the suffering he endured and the suffering he witnessed.
“At that time, we couldn’t think about our families. You can’t imagine how the war was because so many people were killed by bombing,” he says. One incident in particular sums up the brutality of the war.
Seo spent some months by the Nakdang River in a heated exchange with the Chinese. When the hard rain came, so did the bodies. He and his comrades used a net to catch any passing bodies; those of South Korean and US soldiers were brought to a graveyard, those of North Korean soldiers were pushed under the net. “Thousands and thousands of dead bodies,” he says.
“That was the Korean War.”
Despite his service, Seo has not received any official recognition from the US army. The one medal he does have is from the Korean government, which arrived through the mail one day in 2013 — 60 years after the armistice was signed between the North and South.
Seo wasn’t technically a member of the US military or the Korean military and therefore wasn’t on any records. He previously wrote a personal account of his time with the US military for the Korean Ministry of Defense, yet was still surprised when the medal arrived without warning.
When the war ended Seo returned to his family in Busan. He soon exchanged photographs with Lim through the help of his aunt. Seo says Lim “looked good” and he made the trip up to Mokpo just to meet her. Lim says she wasn’t too fussed after seeing his photograph. “Back then I really didn’t care. Just got married. I wouldn’t do that now,” she says laughing. “But,” she adds, “he must have seen something.” This year, they celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.