The Korean War was fought from June 1950 to July 1953 between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the American-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea). Over 2.5 million people perished during the bloody civil war.
In the aftermath, over 60,000 South Korean soldiers captured by North Korea did not return home. While never accounting for individual captives by name, North Korea claimed that they had let all of the POWs go, and that any prisoner who stayed in the North had voluntarily defected to the Communist side.
Then, starting in 1994, a trickle of South Korean POWs began to escape from North Korea and arrive in the South. These individuals—youths when they disappeared but elderly when they returned—brought with them harrowing tales of imprisonment, oppression, abuse, and discrimination. They had been held incommunicado in remote regions of North Korea and subjected to decades of forced labor in mines under such miserable conditions that they often died from exhaustion or starvation. Today it is estimated that only a few hundred of the original 60,000 Korean War POWs remain alive. And yet, they are alive, still prisoners, still wasting away in the North, and still yearning to return home.
Unfortunately, the suffering faced by the POWs extends beyond the boundaries of their own lives. In order to tether them to the North and ensure their unending exploitation and servitude, the regime encouraged them to get married. Many POWs established families. Like their fathers, the children remained impoverished because of government discrimination. Because they grew up with only limited opportunities, most POW children wound up toiling in the mines alongside their fathers.
In this respect, the story of Mr. Yoo is not unlike that of many other POWs left behind in the North, except for the end. In the beginning, he struggled to survive the difficult labor while avoiding deadly accusations of political crimes. Once he had established a family, he went to extraordinary lengths to provide for them. Yet through it all the government treated him and his family with such casual cruelty and inhumanity that at times he had no choice but to stand by helplessly while his loved ones suffered. Finally, at the age of seventy, after enduring fifty years of oppression and injustice, he took the ultimate leap and embarked upon a journey that could only have one of two outcomes: liberty or death.
“Tears of blood” comes from the Korean expression 피눈물 (pi-noon-mool) which describes the agony of watching a loved one suffer. Tears of blood, as we can all understand, result from a pain exceeding anything one might suffer oneself. Mr. Yoo uses the term only once in his autobiography, yet it is thematic of the entire book.
In spite of all the suffering experienced by the POWs during their decades of captivity, and all the tears of blood they have shed for loved ones, their plight remains relatively unknown. The Korean War is commonly remembered for military engagements memorialized in black-and-white photos, such as the bloody Chosin Reservoir Campaign or the heroic Battle of Inchon. Contemporary news revolves around crises and provocations, including the infamous shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, November 23, 2010. Amidst all of this, the fading story of 60,000 unreturned South Korean POWs often escapes any notice at all. Their voices remain mute, and their sacrifices are all but forgotten.
It was during the winter break of my sophomore year in high school, 2010-2011, that I first learned about Mr. Yoo’s remarkable book. I was vacationing at my grandmother’s house in Seoul when my father, who was doing legal research for a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping the South Korean POWs, invited Mrs. Yun-Soon Lee, the daughter of a POW, over for lunch. Mrs. Lee had escaped from North Korea with her father’s remains in order to fulfill his final wish, which was to be buried in the South. That day, Mrs. Lee gave me Mr. Yoo’s book, whose Korean title was Starry Nights in Hell.
After reading Mr.Yoo’s autobiography, I felt that it must be translated into English for a worldwide audience so that the story of the Korean War POWs would not be forgotten. The publisher, Won Books, was supportive of my idea, and that is how the project began.
As I went about translating the book, it became clear that there were many topics that an American audience would not understand. As a citizen of the United States, born and raised here, I found certain aspects of Korean history and culture mysterious. I had to research them for myself, which resulted in numerous footnotes throughout the text. Though sources more knowledgeable than I might be able to improve on these explanatory notes, I hope that they will guide Western readers to a fuller understanding of Mr. Yoo’s narrative.
The story of the POWs and the plight of the North Koreans is not a matter of history. It remains a serious and ongoing problem. In order to protect the identities of many people referred to in the book, it was necessary to alter or leave out certain names and details.
Finally, Mr. Yoo is a plainspoken man, and his book is the same. It is not a political tract, nor is it particularly artful in construction. But, while it may lack the stylistic gloss of other autobiographies, one cannot help but be awestruck by Mr. Yoo’s courage and the simple truthfulness of his testimony. I think that all readers will feel the stunning weight of that simplicity and truthfulness by the time they come to the final scenes of the book. It is not so much what is written in the lines as what is written between them that has such a powerful emotional impact in the end. This is not just a Korean story, or a war story, or an escape story. It is a story of a man who loves his family and simply wants to lead a normal life in the face of endless, needless conflict and suffering. In short, it is a human story.
Paul Taewan Kim
Mountain View, California