It was pleasant to see President Moon Jae-in welcoming Korean and US personnel from the Joint Security Area and Lee Kuk-jong to the Blue House last week. The president praised them for their acts in saving the life of a North Korean defector who was shot and critically wounded when he ran across the demarcation line in the truce village of Panmunjeom on Nov. 13.
Lee from the Regional Trauma Center at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, wearing a black Navy officers’ uniform, impressively introduced himself as “Lt. Cmdr. Lee Cook-jong.” Lee who had in served active duty with the Navy as a sailor had been given the honorary officer’s rank for his successful treatment of a freighter skipper, Seok Hae-gyun, who was severely injured by Somali pirates in a legendary Korean Navy operation in the Gulf of Aden in 2011.
Many South Koreans prayed that Lee would again achieve a miracle with the North Korean soldier, still identified only as Sgt. O, and are relieved to hear that he was recuperating from his multiple gunshot wounds to the stomach and lungs. His daring defection brought the Panmunjeom JSA to worldwide attention amid increasingly troublesome news reports about North Korean missile and nuclear threats.
The president’s commendation and encouragement of people who were involved in saving Sgt. O in the JSA incident was a worthy gesture to reveal how he values the present system of military alliance with the US and demonstrate that he was not quite as weak-kneed toward the Northern regime as opponents have claimed.
The oval-shaped JSA, about 800 meters wide east to west, has symbolized the division of the Korean Peninsula for more than six decades since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire. It has sometimes become the center of violent incidents like the defection through a rain of bullets last month, but has understandably helped defuse tensions between the two parts of Korea by offering a venue for dialogue.
I visited JSA more than 100 times while it was one of the world’s hottest sources of news. The international press corps accredited to the UN Command made trips to Panmunjeom nearly biweekly to cover Military Armistice Commission meetings called to discuss bloody border incidents taking place under the North’s “campaign of violence” that peaked in 1966-68. Then there were numerous sessions of inter-Korean Red Cross talks and government-level contacts open to press coverage. Outside the conference room, we were engaged in lively chats with North Korean reporter-agents comparing our different systems.
In March 1967 during one of these MAC meeting days, Lee Su-geun, then vice president of the North Korean official Central News Agency, defected to the South through the truce village. Then in December 1968, Lee left Seoul with a forged passport only to be arrested by Seoul’s operatives at Tan Son Nhut Airport in what was then Saigon, South Vietnam. He was executed for spying for North Korea and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency announced that he had been a “fake defector.” But many doubted the official explanation.
Sgt. O’s defection led me to think again of Lee Su-geun’s case. Two busloads of domestic and international reporters were in the JSA that day, but we missed the dramatic scene as we left before the North Korean senior member’s lengthy tirade ended. Later, we were briefed by UNC officers on how desperate North Korean guards were to stop the US Army sedan carrying Lee out of the JSA. We were shown the US Army vehicle that had its windshield shattered when it rammed through a barricade pole the moment North Koreans lowered it at their checkpoint.
Lee was a genuine defector who abandoned his privilege and family in the North in search of freedom in the South. In meetings with journalists arranged by intelligence authorities, he related how he suffered in Pyongyang, forced to act against his conscience. I met him for the last time during an Armed Forces Day air show over a Han River beach. All invited spectators were fascinated by the jets’ acrobatic movements, but I was surprised to see Lee seated nearby was dozing.
He looked extremely tired though he was only 45 years old. A few months later, he was caught while trying to escape through Hong Kong and Bangkok. A truth commission in 2005 concluded the KCIA at that time excessively used the important defector in its ideological campaign against Pyongyang and eventually caused his disenchantment with life in the South. His spying charges were determined to have been fabricated.
Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary for the North Korean ruling Workers’ Party, was ardently welcomed here when he defected to Seoul via Beijing in 1997, as he was known to be the creator of the “Juche theory” of independence and as having tutored Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il about state ideology. It was unfortunate that Kim Dae-jung took power in the South the following year and his engagement policy toward the North rather diminished Hwang’s political value.
Hwang died of a heart attack in 2010, a lonely old man who sacrificed everything to come here. The former president of Kim Il-sung University left a poem, which read, “Messenger from eternal darkness is knocking at the door/ Telling me time to leave has already passed/ Never sorry to part with worthless time/ Still anxious to see brightness in the future/ And not knowing how will it be with my loved ones.”
Over the seven decades of partition, defectors have streamed into the South crossing the border, some so daringly through minefields or barrages of fire, some riding rough waves of the sea and tens of thousands via China and other third countries. The South’s magnetic power toward the oppressed, impoverished people of the North remains strong with promises of freedom and material affluence, but it is regrettable that politics here has prepared differing lots for more prominent defectors.
If Lee, Hwang and the more recent arrival Thae Yong-ho, formerly of North Korea’s London embassy, saw and see the Republic of Korea differently from what they had expected, it is not their fault. Those 30,000 people who came here from the North earlier than Sgt. O must also live here in varied situations, but they need only to remind themselves that they have chosen a place where human life is respected.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.