Photo of Kang taken in April, 2021, at his home in Cheongju.
Interview and arrangement by Cho Jeong-hee, director of the Memorial Project Team Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation
Kang on a C-46 transport on his way to his father’s grave on Jeju Island. He was 22 years old.
I’m from Pyongyang. I can still vividly remember the days in Pyongyang, whether they were in summer or winter. In the summer, I used to swim in the Taedonggang River. The water was so clear at the time. I also remember climbing up the hill of Moranbong Hill and eating the green apple that my father gave me. Green apples were famous in the north. I also used to dip roast frog hind legs in salt for snacks. Sledding was popular in the wintertime. I saw my uncles skating on ice, and I thought I could skate as well as they did. I remember everything except my father’s face. Isn’t that weird? I thought I remembered everything. When I look at the picture of my father, that is all I can see, and I can never picture him in my memory.
Picture of late Kang Se-yoon, father of Won-sam
My father was in charge of an oxygen factory, a factory for manufacturing oxygen tanks for medicinal use. Right before the Korean War was the time when communists began to rise. At that time, those who were well treated by the Japanese were arrested because they were branded as bourgeois. My father would not leave home during this time. He quit his job and became the secretary for Bishop Francisco Hong Yong-ho of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pyongyang. My mother said that Bishop Francisco wanted to send my father to the United States to study, but the Korean War ruined that plan.
As soon as the war broke out, there came the so-called wheezers, and wheezers was the name we called the F-86 Sabres because they flew about in the sky, making a wheezing noise. Everyone had to hide when they heard the sound. The planes would come out of nowhere and start shooting machine guns, “Rat-a-tat-tat.” Our family had to flee to the countryside north of Pyongyang to avoid the bombing. What would I, then a seven-year-old boy, know about war? Nothing. I was excited only because I was able to play in nature. Sometimes I came across armed soldiers of the People’s Army but they never scared me. At the time, every soldier of the People’s Army carried a loaf of bread. They would use it as pillows or cushions to sit on. Sometimes, they would share it with me, and I liked it. It was delicious.
Late father (Se-yoon) and late mother (Han Geum-jeom) of Kang Won-sam.
We were able to return home after Pyongyang was reclaimed (Oct. 20, 1950) by the U.N. forces. It was not until I entered the city that I felt the horror of war. It was hell. A corpse lying on a horse, another inside an automobile, and numerous others who were shot dead and abandoned on the street. Buildings crumbled to rubble by bombing. The haze and the burning smell surrounded all of Pyongyang. I had never seen such a gruesome scene before. I tiptoed not to step on any corpses only to slip on empty ammunition shells. Machine gun shells were literally everywhere.
Right next to where I lived was the Saint Mary’s Girls School. Korean soldiers of the U.N. military force who camped at the school came to our house whenever they wanted some kimchi. It wouldn’t do us any arm because in exchange, they would bring flour and meat. One night, someone was pounding hard on our door. It was a soldier who came to tell us to quickly move into the camp because the U.N. force was preparing for a strategic retreat. Hurriedly, my father packed some blankets and my mother took some hastily baked buns and gochujang, a red pepper paste, before leaving our house. The Korean soldiers hid our family in large drums that were used to carry food supply. Hiding inside the drums, we were driven on a supply truck and dropped in Sariwon, Hwanghae Province, south of Pyongyang. I would never return to Pyongyang.
After we reached Sariwon, we took a train, a roofless one. We had nothing to eat but the buns and gochujang until we reached Busan. We headed to the Central Catholic Church of Busan, which was already full of refugees. My father managed to arrange a small room near the church. There were my parents, me, and my little brother in my family and the room was very small for all four of us. Soon my grandfather and two uncles came to find us. My father was the eldest son. They said they made it out of Pyongyang after the destruction of the Taedonggang railway bridge, but they could not bring my grandmother and aunt, who was heavily pregnant, with them. They did not know this was going to last long and thought they could go back again. Who would have known that going back was impossible for the rest of our lives? Since there were three more who joined us, we had to move to some place more spacious.
In February, 1951, we boarded a United States landing ship with other refugees from the church and landed on Jeju. We were supposed to land in Seogwipo, but the stormy weather made it hard for the ship to dock, so the ship landed at Moseulpo. From Moseulpo, we walked all the way to the village of Gongcheonpo, a refugee camp. My little brother was carried at the top of the thermal blankets by my father. I was eight and too heavy to be lifted. I walked all the way by my father’s side. It took the entire night walking to the small fishing village of Gongcheonpo. Our family was allotted a thatched house in a winding alleyway with stone walls. We all fell fast asleep.
Oh Soon-bu explains the site of the house Kang’s family used to live in after the family came to Gongcheonpo following the January 4th Retreat in 1951.
At the dawn of Feb. 19, 1951, we heard the sound of a crowd. Suddenly, the surrounding area became as bright as the day. The entire village was alight with flames. Houses burned, people were running, and cows and pigs were on fire and crying. It was a scene of hell that I had never seen. On that day, my father was found dead, smeared in blood right in front of the house we were staying in by the alleyway.
We were able to bury him at a nearby hill thanks to the help of other villagers. My mother cried and wailed. I do not know why but I did not cry at all. My father lay dead under a white cloth, and, maybe, I was just too young to understand my father’s death. I was not accustomed to the uncomfortable sight of my mother crying. On the day we buried my father, we heard the news about my uncle. He was found dead on a nearby beach. My uncle, Deok-yoon, who ran toward the beach, seemed to have hid under a big black rock. He might have drowned as the tide rose. We buried uncle Deok-yoon next to my father. There was the other uncle, Ho-yoon, who was found next to my dead father, covered all in blood, but barely alive. He survived but would never again be healthy. He could not see well because he was stabbed in the eyes. His intestines that were slashed left him a life filled with serious pain. Uncle Ho-yoon eventually died in 1959. My father and all two of his brothers were victims of the attack on Gongcheonpo.
In 1965, Won-sam and his younger brother visited the burial site of their father and uncle in Jomulgogji, Gongcheonpo (a fishing port in Sinnye-2-ri in Namwon-eup), to pay tributes.
My mother wanted to leave Jeju as soon as possible. Even before uncle Ho-yoon recovered, we moved to Busan along with some other refugees. My mother was 27 when my father died. It must have been so hard for her to lose her husband, and rearing two young children alone, at the young age 27. I was sent to her sister’s place, and my little brother was sent to her brother’s house. My mother went to Seoul for work. That’s when I started moving about, from one relative’s place to another. I went to four different elementary schools. My grandfather went crazy after losing all three of his sons. He went missing then, after he headed out to look for grandmother in Pyongyang. Not knowing where he died, we couldn’t even bury him properly. There was no one left to take care of him. That is how hectic our lives were. I spent my fourth year of elementary school in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk Province. Whenever I feel life is hard on me, the memories I have from my time in Cheongju help me endure. The year and a half I spent in Cheongju is memorable to me. So, I thought of Cheongju as my “second home.” That is how I came to settle down in Cheongju. Jeju could have become one, only if my father stayed alive. My mother hated Jeju so much. Whenever anything, even a television show, shows up about Jeju, she would turn away from it. Even when traveling to Jeju became so popular, she would never want to go. Now she is gone, too. It was my mother’s lifelong wish to go back to her home. I only hope she has met my father, returned to Pyongyang, and may even have toured around Jeju, too. I only wish them happiness in their afterlife together.
Graves of Won-sam’s father and uncle renovated by elder villagers of Gongcheonpo. Walls were made around the graves, and the tombstone was engraved with the names, “Kang Se-yoon and Kang Deok-yoon.”
When I was 22 and my brother 20, we were enlisted to the military together. I became a soldier in the air force, while my brother joined the marine corp. On our first break, I was given a chance to ride an air force transport. Together with my brother, we rode a C-46 transporter and went to Jeju. It was the first time we went to Jeju in 15 years since we left Gongcheonpo. I think it was 1965. The villagers remember almost everything about the day when my father and uncle died.
Late Heo Chan-ik (left), Kim Han-gook (second from left), late Kang Seong-hoon (second from right) and two other Gongcheonpo villagers whose names are unknown rest after helping move and renovate the graves of Se-yoon and Deok-yoon in 1986. The victims were originally buried in the village’s Jomulgogji area.
“On the 14th day of the lunar calendar, there was an attack, the last attack. I was attending guard duty that night. There was no one dead among those who were native to the village. I think there were 24 houses that were burned. While no one was dead among the native villagers, only refugees who came from out of Jeju after the January 4th Retreat died. Strangely, only those from the north were attacked. There were two dead. One died in front of the storage building of Nonghyup (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation), and the other was found dead at sea. I recall the two were brothers. It was an unimaginably cruel scene because they were not shot but stabbed to death. Come to think of it, as the rioters were taking one of the refugees, they engaged in a battle against the police force in Anpatgol in Yechon (Sinnye-1-ri). The armed rioters left the refugee, who could eventually come back alive. A village elder named Ko Yeo-man and his family buried the dead refugees in Jomulgogji. That was the place where we used to bury young children, but we had nowhere else for the refugees’ burial.” (A testimony by Oh Soon-bu, born in 1934)
Thanks to Oh’s explanation, we could easily find the graves of my father and uncle. Standing in front of the graves where weeds were overgrowing even without a tombstone, I bust into tears. It occurred to me that my father could only recognize his sons aged eight and six. Our father had no chance to see us grow until we turn 20 and 22. I thought of all the times when no one came to visit while my father was buried in a faraway place like a total stranger. How lonely would it have been for him? I desperately wanted to relocate the graves to Cheongju right away. Unfortunately, I was not in any condition to do so because I was a penniless soldier. So I decided to move his remains when things get better. For the time being, I asked some of the villagers to renovate the graveyard and prevent any damage.
The grave of Kang Se-yoon is now located in Saint Joseph Catholic Cemetery Park in Cheongju.
After I finished my service in the air force and got married, I was busy attending to my life, but, maybe that was just an excuse. I left Korea for a job and came back in 1985, at the age of 42. I arranged a grave site in a Cheongju-based Catholic cemetery park to move the graves of my father and uncle from Jomulgogji in Gongcheonpo. The next year, I was able to execute the plan. I also made separate tombstones for them, writing “Kang Se-yoon born in 1919 in Pyongyang, died on Feb. 19, 1951, in Jeju” for my father and “Kang Deok-yoon born in 1926 in Pyongyang, died on Feb. 19, 1951 in Jeju” for my uncle.
When my mother passed away in 2003, I accidentally came to see my family’s registration records. It said my father died on Sept. 5, 1946, in Pyongyang. I was startled. You don’t really look into those records every day. That is when I first began thinking of correcting the records about my father’s death. In 2018, I came to see a promotional TV program about the 70th anniversary of Jeju 4·3. Until then, I thought only those who were killed around April 3, 1948, could be identified as victims. But as I looked more closely, I learned that all of those who were killed during a set period of time in Jeju are recognized as victims. So, I called the Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation to see if my father and uncles could be designated victims of Jeju 4·3. If they were, I thought, I could correct the erroneous record of my father’s death. In three years after consulting about even the smallest clue to solve the problem, I could finally register them as a victim of Jeju 4·3. There were times when I thought the deaths of my family were only unfortunate and meaningless. Now I could correct the mistake and comfort the souls of the deceased. Would this not be suitable, however little, as a son’s filial duty?