After the Korean War ended in 1953, Kim Myeong Bok and 75 other North Korean prisoners of war detained in South Korea opted to live abroad rather than risk hostile welcomes in either half of their homeland. Now he wants to come home, though he may find little more than rejection and suspicion.
Amid the Koreas’ intense Cold War rivalry, they were labeled traitors, opportunists or fence-sitters. The fates of several North Korean POWs who voluntarily returned home are unknown. Many others have died abroad one by one, and now less than a dozen are believed to be alive.
Kim, now 79 and living in Brazil, is trying to return to his North Korean hometown, at the arrangement of a movie director who’s making a documentary on him and his fellow ex-POWs.
He doesn’t have North Korea’s approval yet and may never get it, though he will at least visit the South. He knows this is probably his last chance to try to go home.
“I’ve missed my parents a lot, particularly my mother, who took me to a church and told me to believe in Jesus Christ,” Kim said, speaking from the remote Brazilian city of Cuiaba during a recent video interview. “I want to go to the place where my church stood, but it must have been pulled down by now.”
Kim lowered his head and wiped away tears when he said his mother often came to his mind whenever he faced difficulties in life. “Forgive me,” he said, weeping.
Kim and most of the other POWs who left the Korean Peninsula settled in South America. None could have expected that their homeland would remain so bitterly divided for so long. With an armistice signed but not a peace treaty, the peninsula remains technically at war, with combat troops still facing each other along Earth’s most heavily fortified border.
The POWs left for many reasons: to avoid the North’s harsh systems, to enjoy religious freedom, to build up professional careers. Many feared execution in the North for having been held captive in the South.
Many believed their family members must have died during the chaos of the three-year war, which killed millions. They chose not to stay on in the South because they worried about living with the label of ex-North Korean soldiers in a country where they had no relatives or friends.
“We are not against North Korea, but the situation was very critical and miserable, so we left Korea and went to other countries and we are so anxious to meet our relatives,” said an 86-year-old ex-POW now living in San Francisco. He asked to be identified only by his initials — H.T. — out of concern for any living relatives he may have in the North.
Kim said he surrendered himself to South Korea’s military only a month and a half after being conscripted into the North’s People’s Army in 1950. He said he didn’t want to return to the North, where authorities suppressed Christians and severe poverty forced his family to eat porridge made of soybean residue three times a day.
Life at a South Korean island prison camp was also harrowing, he said. South Korean documents say that POWs who supported the North rioted and got into sometimes deadly fights with those who did not.
“I was really fed up with the POW camp life. So many people were killed there,” he said.
During and after the war, the American-led U.N. forces repatriated more than 83,000 Chinese and North Korean POWs while the North turned back more than 13,000 South Korean and U.N. troops. Tens of thousands of others stayed in the countries they once fought against; North and South Korea accuse each other of keeping at least some of the POWs against their will.
In 1954, 76 North Korean and 12 Chinese soldiers who chose third countries were first sent to India as a stopover before being moved to countries where they hoped to resettle. Some wished to live to the U.S., but under an agreement among the U.N. command, North Korea and China, they were allowed to go only to countries that had been neutral in the war.
After more than two years of being stranded in India, about 60 ex-North Korean soldiers were eventually able to move to Brazil and Argentina. H.T. moved to the U.S. years after settling in Brazil. About 10 others returned to either North or South Korea while the rest remained in India, according to a 2001 research paper from analyst Cho Sung-hun at the South Korean state-run Institute for Military History.
The fate of those who returned to the North remains unknown. Many ex-POWs believe unconfirmed past media reports that they were executed, but Cho said they could have been used as propaganda tools instead.
A 1993 documentary film broadcast by South Korea’s MBC television showed the paths many of them took: a medical professor, a quarry owner, a fishing-ship captain. Some were pastors. One was accused of murder and sent to a facility for mentally ill criminals.
Kim arrived in Brazil in 1956 and became a farmer, mostly in the western state of Mato Grosso, where Cuiaba is located.
Many ex-POWs struggled to get along with other Korean immigrants, mostly from South Korea, who only regarded them as just ex-communist soldiers, according to Cho Kyeong-duk, the movie director who is making the documentary about the ex-POWs’ possible return.
“They went to ‘neutral countries’ or third countries but it was ironic that they couldn’t walk a step away from the ideological confrontation,” Cho said.
Former POWs have been gradually forgotten in South Korea, but many who recall their stories now view them as victims of the war and the ensuing Korean division.
“They are the ones who’ve been standing on the boundary without belonging to either side,” said analyst Chang Yong Seok at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. “I think they have undergone really difficult lives.”
Time is running out for any potential reunions. Ten of the 21 POWs Cho has interviewed since beginning his project in 2009 are dead. He believes the remaining 11 are the last former North Korean POWs sent to third countries: six in Brazil, two each in Argentina and the US and one in India.
Under the itinerary of the movie tentatively titled “Return Home,” Cho’s crew is to join Kim as he meets other POWs in Brazil and Argentina and flies to India before coming to South Korea around June 25, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. Cho said Kim is the only one who has so far agreed to travel with him while others remained undecided.
In South Korea, Kim is to visit the site of his POW camp on the southern Geoje Island and the border village of Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed.
Cho and Kim have met North and South Korean diplomats in Brazil several times but haven’t gotten approval from either government. The director said his conversations with diplomats suggest that the North does not want them to visit the South and vice versa, but he insists on stops in both countries.
“More than 60 years have passed but things remain unchanged,” Cho said.
In answers to questions about Cho and Kim’s travel plans, UN Command spokesman Cpt. Frederick Agee said it only considers for approval border crossing requests that are officially presented by both Koreas. The command and North Korea jointly oversee the 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer) Demilitarized Zone that bisects the peninsula.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it determines whether to endorse a South Korean’s request to visit the North after reviewing overall ties with Pyongyang and other factors.
Kim hopes he’s allowed to cross the border through Panmunjom and travel to his hometown of Ryongchon on the North’s northwestern tip. He assumes his parents are dead, but wants to visit their graves, along with the site of the church that he presumes was destroyed.
He says he’s a bit scared, but won’t give up.
“My Brazil pastor told me North Korea is a dangerous country to go,” he said. “But I still want to go there, even if I run into some troubles.”