LEAVING NORTH KOREA
by Donald K. Chung

Copyright © 1989 by Donald K. Chung



The night I fled Chu-ul it was ominously dark. Snow crunched underfoot and covered the surrounding terrain, made visible by headlights of the motorized division. The longest trek I had ever made was the three-hour homeward journey on foot from the racetrack in Harbin, the day Father bet and lost our bus fare. It didn't take a statistical genius to calculate that that earlier record stood no chance of survival at the ordeal stretching out before me.

Limping along on sore or frozen feet were people of all ages, both male and female. Their number grew as hour after hour of the fearful night passed by. Many older men and women hobbled along using canes and occasionally even on crutches. Not unexpectedly, they fell farther and farther behind, unable to match the pace of the forward moving throng. Occasionally younger family members would slow to assist their elders, but many younger refugees tried desperately at all costs to keep up with the line of soldiers and trucks of the retreating army.

The farther south the march penetrated, the greater grew the throng. Many ox-drawn carts, heavily overburdened with household goods and human cargo, slipped off the treacherous icy roads into ditches filled with ice and slush. If the oxen could not regain their footing on the road, the soldiers, no doubt following orders, shot them as they hopelessly struggled.

As was to be expected, more and more of those fleeing southward fell farther and farther behind. I, being young and in good health and driven by my relentless fear, managed to keep pace with the main body of death's-head troops I had followed out of Chu-ul.

We arrived at Myungchon as the sun was coming up on December 3. At that moment, the soldiers stopped at the local school and trudged into the yard to light fires and cook their breakfasts. I walked on to a farmhouse on the far otskirts of the town and begged for food and a place to take a brief rest. The farmer was most gracious considering the circumstances. He welcomed me into his home and placed before me a warm breakfast consisting of a baked potato, a small dollop of rice and some hot soybean soup with cabbage.

As I was eating, I noticed that one of the farmer's young sons had an infected wound on his right thigh. "Why hasn't this wound been treated?" I asked. "The war has driven away our local medical practitioner," the farmer replied. As soon as I had wolfed down the last of the hot breakfast, I cleansed the wound and gave the farmer several packets of sulfa from my emergency medical kit. I was happy to be able to do something to repay this man for his extraordinary kindness. I settled down for a short, sound nap then rushed off amidst mutual good wishes to rejoin the military column.

The next day, December 4, came and went as I followed alongside the ROK Army motorized column. The third day, December 5, was the day I had promised Mother I would return home. Why I had made such a rash and impossible promise I do not know. The words had merely issued from my mouth, conceived not with any conscious though of mine, but with a heedless rush as though by prerecorded rote. Aware of my unfulfilled promise, I kept my direction headed south though my spirit fled my body and must have hovered over the little house in Chu-ul where dwelled my mother.

By now I felt as though I, too, were motorized, being driven by the pressing rush of events outside my control. I was lost in time, oblivious to everything except the fact of moving forward. I ate the last of the rice and cuttlefish Mother had packed into my knapsack. I put on the last of the three pairs of socks she had supplied. I was weary, confused, and frightened.

We arrived at the large town of Kilchu on the afternoon of December 6. As I wandered through the streets in search of food or a warm or simply sheltered place to rest, I saw a dozen young men sitting in a group in the town schoolyard. All of the men wore armbands that read "Local Volunteer Youth Group." I assumed, correctly, that the group had been formed to somehow assist the ROK Army. I sneaked into the yard and plopped myself down behind the resting group. When the young men rose sometime later, I went with them.

We all wound up at the nearby home of the group leader. The man did not seem to have a firm idea of how things were going, but he announced, "The ROK Army is retreating back to South Korea." We were then fed a substantial dinner of steaming hot rice, hot soup and kimchee, Korean pickled cabbage. During the meal, I ventured to introduce myself to as many of the others as I could. This very mixed bag included men of all ages, up to the age of fifty. I found that, as usual, I was one of the youngest. There were brothers and fathers and sons, professors and students. Most of the men were well educated college students or graduates. I gathered that many, perhaps most, of the men harbored strong anti- Communist sentiments. However, most claimed to have fallen in with the slowly-growing group more out of a sense that there was safety in numbers than out of political conviction. I was not sure what we were supposed to be doing for the ROK Army, nor what the rewards were supposed to be. As happened so often in my life, I was content to pull the distinctive armband up the sleeve of my topcoat and follow along. I certainly did not question why I was so readily taken in.

At noon on the following day, December 7, our group marched back to the school at which I had first found it. The word was passed around that we would be receiving instructions from ROK Army soldiers. It was a clear day and much warmer than it had been since before I left Chu-ul. Marching was made difficult through streets slushy with melting snow.

Kilchu was filled with ROK soldiers, army vehicles, and countless thousands of refugees seeking shelter from the wind on the sidewalks or under the eaves of houses.

As I marched along, grateful for the warmer air which lessened the earlier biting sting, I was stunned to see Father sitting in front of a house, soaking his feet in a basin of water. With him was my third uncle, the one whose wife had been so brutally murdered at the Chu-ul hot springs and whose body I had identified. Uncle was leaning on a cane, his feet bound in bandages.

Breaking free from the Volunteer Youth Group I rushed toward them. "Father," I shouted, "I knew you would be coming with me."

At the moment all the years of emotional deprivation I had suffered because of this cold and distant figure fell away as I instinctively reached out my arms to hug him. He returned my embrace with vigor, something he had never before done. All the animosities built up over the years seemed suddenly and swiftly washed away. It felt like the beginning of something new and wonderful.

Father looked totally wasted. Besides the blisters on his soaking feet, his lips were a mass of fever blisters. Gone, too, was his erstwhile meticulous clothing, replaced by ragged clothing such as my own. Despite their utter exhaustion, Father and Uncle seemed to brighten at the sight of me, Dong-kyu, standing before them.

Instantly, Father opened his pack and pulled out two pieces of rice cake which he gave to me. Hesitating briefly, I took one small bite. Then, as though the present rushed in over me like a tidal wave, I hastily mumbled, "Good-bye. Soon we shall meet again in the South," and rushed off to rejoin the Volunteer Youth Group.

Whether it was a resurgence of lifelong loyalty to Mother and the imbedded memories of Father's denial of any fatherly affection, I disregarded the momentary filial reaction I felt upon seeing Father in his piteous condition.

Now it was I who directed my steps as I saw my real future beckoning, knowing that the past, like a long-held umbilical cord, was finally and irrevocably cut from my body.

The Volunteer Youth Group was not assigned any duties by the ROK Army that day—or ever, really—but we did receive definite orders to get to Songjin as soon as possible.

Much later, I learned that large units of the North Korean People's Army, backed by even larger units of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, had been moving steadily south from the Chongjin area and had arrived on the north side o Myungchon on December 7. On the same day, a regiment of the ROK 3rd Division had been in contact with North Korean soldiers before retreating through Kilchu and on to Songjin to be evacuated by ship with the main body of the division.

A light snow began to fall late in the night of December 8. The column of the Volunteer Youth Group had reached the top of another seemingly endless series of mountain passes. Gone was the warm air of the previous day. The road we stumbled along was slippery with slush. A bitter north wind drove the falling snow against our backs. One thought alone got us all over that pass. We knew that at the bottom of the long slope that rolled away to the south was the port of Songjin.

At the top of the pass, a checkpoint had been set up by the ROK military police. Every refugee was given a thorough inspection before being allowed to decend into the city.

As if the progress of this human phalanx had not already been mercilessly impeded by its own hunger, fatigue, sickness, and the cruelty of the weather, it was now forced in its thousands upon thousands, to huddle standing up in the bitter onslaught of the elements, snared in a bureaucratic Catch-22.

Eventually my group reached the checkpoint. Our Volunteer Youth Group armbands were prominently displayed as the MPs flashed their torches over our bodies and into our faces. At length, the light, searing in the stygian dark, found my face. I heard a disembodied voice admonish me to move on. With that, our group, now numbering over 200, reformed and marched quickly down the mountain toward the city. The landscape before us lay in near-total darkness. Only a few gleams of dim, widely dispersed light shone from an occasional house here and there.

Long after midnight, we were guided to an empty factory warehouse and told to get some sleep. This was one of the easiest orders I have ever had to obey. I simply blacked out as soon as my head touched my knapsack, so profound was the accumulated physical and emotional strain I had experienced throughout the previous week.

"Get up and meet outside immediately."

Thus was I awakened on the morning of December 9, 1950. It was still dark. A cold wind blew as we shuffled sleepily into line outside the warehouse. I could see masses of ROK Army vehicles, soldiers and refugees in the dark gloom, and all seemed to be moving toward the port. After a brief wait, we filed into the endless column, following the cone of light from the group leader's flashlight.

To my surprise and relief, the docks were only a few blocks from the warehouse. After waiting for most of the army vehicles, equipment and troops to be loaded on the huge, grey-painted ship tied up at the pier, my group was guided up the gangway by a military policeman—as though we were somehow especially privileged beings.

A guide met us at the top of the ramp and led us to the very bottom of an open hold that held army vehicles and equipment. I thought of the tens of thousands of refugees from all over northeastern Korea stranded outside the port area. Each one was desperately hoping to securea spot aboard one of the few overcrowded vessels. All around me in the hold I noticed that men, mostly young, comprised the majority of refugees. What agonies they must have endured in deciding to follow the ROK Army singly aboard ship, rather than waiting to see if they might all be rescued with their families intact.

I was lost in such dark thoughts when, at about one o'clock in the afternoon, the gangway was raised and our ship—the United States Navy transport St. Wind— got underway. I was later told by men who were standing outside on the main deck that hundreds of refugees had plunged into the icy waters and drowned as the entire mass of waiting humanity surged forward in a final convulsion of hope and fear. The sea was stained by blotches of blood, and the faces of many of the men on deck were rimed with their frozen tears.

As soon as we cleared the harbor, I set out in search of Father and Uncle. Though I searched through as much of the ship as I could, I was unable to find either of them.

This was the first time I had ever been aboard a large ship sailing on the open sea. It was quite different from the Saturday night steamboat cruises on the Sungari River my family had enjoyed in Harbin before the end of World War II. Then, we had been feted with good food, comfortable seating and good music, and the sailing had been so smooth that the wine in Father's glass had never moved. Now, here I was, on a vast grey whale of a ship proceeding slowly out to sea. The ride was neither as smooth nor as comfortable, but I felt happier to be making it than I ever had on those long-ago cruises on the Sungari. I stood on deck and watched until the dock I had crossed in the dark of the morning finally passed from sight. In time, I could no longer see land.

The ship came to a bumpy stop late in the night, but I could not see enough to figure out where. Someone in my group later reported that we were docked at Hungnam, and I learned years later that the 105,000 Americans comprising the United States X Corps were embarked from this great port over a ten-day period along with 91,000 North Korean civilian refugees, 17,500 vehicles and 350,000 tons of supplies and equipment. In all, some one hundred nine oceangoing vessels undertook a total of one hundred ninety-three round trips between South Korean ports and Hungnam and other North Korean eastern ports.

When we left Hungnam on the night of December 10, the wind was blowing fiercely and the sea was rough. I felt as though my stomach had turned upside down, and I vomited copiously until only a yellow bile came up. I knew that I had become dehydrated, so I tried to crawl out onto the main deck to get some fresh air and find some water to roll around in my foul-tasting mouth. I got to a hatchway and felt more movement than I had below. I could see that waves were breaking across the rails.

There were no lights showing on the main deck or from the high bridge, nor in any direction away from the ship. I had eaten nothing since the ship left Songjin on December 9; there was no food aboard for refugees. Besides, I was too sick to hold any food down. My dehydrated and weakened state made me confused, perhaps a bit delirious. In the pitch blackness, I managed to climb aboard an ROK Army truck that had been lashed to the deck and covered with a canvas tarpaulin. I reached into the rear compartment and grabbed a handful of something from a large container. Clutching my find to my chest, I weaved to the nearest bathroom without looking at what I had stolen, for I was afraid of being waylaid by the ROK military policemen who patrolled the ship.

When I reached light, I opened my hand and discovered that I had stolen dried, salted anchovies destined for the ROK mess hall. I was so hungry that I fought all the anchovies down my gullet without thinking about the consequences. I licked my hand clean and started back to rejoin the Volunteer Youth Group. I was overcome with a powerful thirst within a minute, but my frantic search through that part of the ship turned up no drinking water. I finally fell into an exhausted heap on the deck between the trucks stored in the hold.

I was awakened on the morning of December 12 by the sound of many people walking out on the main deck. I tried to get up, but I found that I was weak and dizzy, which I vaguely recognized as the results of severe dehydration and malnutrition. At length, I managed to pull myself out to the deck and breathed in fresh air, which made me feel a little better.

A round, red sun was rising in the east, far out to sea. To the west was my first sight of land since boarding the ship. I noticed that the storm winds had abated and the sea was calm. As the ship neared shore, I saw that the land was brown, not white with snow. As we came closer to shore, I was amazed to see women walking along the mountain paths overlooking the sea with heavy loads atop their heads, not wearing overcoats, though it was the middle of winter. Then I noticed for the first time that the air was balmy, and not a single cloud flecked the sky.

The St. Wind docked at the tiny southern port of Kuryongpo-ri at about eight o'clock in the morning of December 12, 1950. It had been ten days since I had left Chu-ul, and I was seven days overdue making good my last promise to Mother.

It took a long time to unload the military vehicles, equipment and soldiers. I stood in a corner of the deck to watch, but I could not control the thoughts racing through my mind as I looked out over the village and upon the mountain behind it.

I kept telling myself, "Kuryongpo-ri is a part of the motherland. Its people are my people. They speak my language." I knew that, before World War II, every country boy's dream had been to go to Seoul to study at the Imperial University. Now, I thought, Seoul is the capital of half the Korean nation, the half to which I have been denied access since my years back from Manchuria. Here I am, looking across a tiny Korean port in a part of the land that calls itself the Republic of Korea. I come from a part of the land that calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Both are home. But they have become different because of the policies of two alien powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and because of the clashing political convictions of the rabid Communists and rabid anti-Communists who have won the support of one or the other of those alien powers.

I could not keep my thoughts untangled, for I had had the precepts of Marxist-Leninist doctrine hammered into my mind for five long years. I was alienated from my southern cousins for five years because, my leaders told me, they had been seduced by the impure doctrines of capitalist-imperialist avarice. I had been led to believe that on June 25, just six months ago, these mad-dog cousins I am about to face had been induced to mount, suddenly and without any excuse, a military adventure against my—and their—peaceloving kinsmen. I stood ready to take my first step onto South Korean soil, not because I really wanted to, and certainly not out of any conviction that one half of the Korean nation's people were any more right than the other half.

I was here because I had opted to be saved from peremptory execution by placing myself in the care of the army of my southern cousins, and that army had—almost as an afterthought—allowed me to tag along in its wake as it returned to its part of the motherland.

It occurred to me that I should start trying to find my third and fourth cousins, who had come south from Chu-ul in 1947. Then I got sidetracked thinking about all the cars and luxurious possessions these southerners surely owned.

As I waded through my confused emotions and outlandish daydreams, the hour approached noon, and the Volunteer Youth Group was ordered from the ship.