A Long Road Home

3 minute read
Donald Macintrye and Julie Han | Yanji

The last time he saw his kid brother, Hyung Doh, Private Lee Chul Soo was a foot soldier on home leave during the Korean War. The family took a snapshot of Lee standing proudly under a persimmon tree with his gun. But a week before the war ended, on July 27, 1953, Lee was captured and taken to North Korea, where he spent most of the next 50 years working in a coal mine. In November, Lee managed to escape from North Korea into China, and last month his younger brother flew to the city of Yanji for a reunion. The two siblings barely recognized each other. “It’s me, Hyung Doh,” the younger brother said, and Lee, now 71, gasped and embraced him. “I escaped death many times during the war and again working in the mines,” Lee said quietly. “I knew if I stayed alive, I would see my family.”

Amazingly, almost 500 POWs are still stuck in North Korea, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Defense. (Reports of American POW sightings have never been confirmed.) The two countries swapped prisoners when hostilities ended, but North Korea held onto at least 19,000 soldiers, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense estimates, and has stubbornly denied their existence ever since. Says Ahn Sang Won, a spokesman for the Korean Veterans Association: “We just don’t understand why South Korea can’t be tougher on the North.” According to the government, Lee was only the 35th POW to escape North Korea alive.

South Korean law grants up to $580,000 to POWs when they return home, so a minibusiness has sprung up. Brokers living on the Chinese border offer to find POWs and spirit them out—if families pay fees of at least $25,000. But sometimes getting across the border isn’t enough. Jeon Yong Il, another South Korean POW who worked in a mine for decades, swam across the Tumen River into China last June along with his North Korean son, daughter-in-law and her mother. But when the group asked for help at the South Korean embassy in Beijing, they were told the Ministry of Defense couldn’t find Jeon’s name on its POW list. Jeon was arrested by the Chinese and nearly sent back to North Korea. South Korean activists played a taped plea by Lee on an evening news program, and Seoul intervened with Beijing. Jeon finally got home to South Korea last Christmas Eve. But while he was held in a Chinese jail, his son was arrested and shipped back to North Korea and his daughter-in-law and her mother disappeared, possibly seized by traffickers.

Lee Chul Soo chose to flee without his North Korean sons, daughters and grandchildren. (He insists on using a pseudonym to protect them.) He hopes they can join him one day. But even after returning home after five decades as a prisoner, his family is sundered by a long-ago war.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com