‘It was so hot your sweat would sting. Many, many died’: Soldier captured by North Korea 47 years ago reveals the horrors he endured after being forced to work down a mine for decades
Yoo Young-bok was captured in the final month of the Korean War in 1953
- But he was never repatriated – and sent to work in the biggest mine in North Korea, doomed to work for the secretive regime for almost 50 years
- He finally escaped the horrific conditions in 2000 after the death of his wife – just in time to be reunited with his 94-year-old father in South Korea
- Now 85, he is calling on Kim Jong Un to release the remaining POWs
A Korean War veteran has spoken of enduring almost five decades of slave-like conditions in North Korea’s mines after he was taken prisoner.
Yoo Young-bok was a young soldier fighting for South Korea when he was captured by Chinese Communist troops in 1953, just a month before the end of the three year conflict.
He couldn’t have imagined then it would be another 47 years before he saw his family again, having survived decades working down North Korea’s mines.
But Yoo – who finally returned to the South just weeks before his elderly father’s death – is one of the lucky ones: there are still thought to be hundreds of prisoners of war trapped in North Korea today.
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‘I thought if I was dragged to North Korea, they would send me back in a prisoner exchange, but they didn’t,’ the 85-year-old veteran told MailOnline.
‘They forced me to work in the mines. At that time, many people in North Korea had died and many young people had fled to the South, so there was nobody left for reconstruction.’
Tainted with suspicion as a South Korean soldier, he was condemned to spend the next 47 years toiling at mines for coal, lead and zinc as punishment for fighting the regime of Kim Il-sung, the late founder of North Korea.
But it wasn’t just him: many POWs were banished down the mines, while their offspring were permanently shut out from sought-after employment opportunities because of their family history.
In fact Yoo, who was born in 1930 in what is now North Korea, had been coerced into joining the North Korean People’s Army after it captured Seoul, where he and his family lived at the time.
Yoo managed to flee to the South, but was thrown in prison for two years for fighting with the enemy.
After his release, he says, he was drafted into fighting for South Korea, a turn of events that would result in him being worked to the bone by North Korea for almost the whole of his adult life.
Yoo was sent to work in the country’s biggest mine, where the air is so bad ‘merely going inside makes it hard to breathe’ – and even more difficult to load the ore.
‘When you go down 500 to 1,000 metres, even if you just stand still, you drip sweat so much that your skin stings. Even if you aren’t working, that’s what it’s like,’ Yoo recalled.
But those in charge took no excuse for not meeting your targets.
‘Normally, they would tell you to work for eight hours, but if you couldn’t complete your quota, your time would be extended and they’d make you work longer,’ Yoo said.
‘So you wouldn’t come out of the pit and you’d keep working while eating and sleeping there.
‘Some people didn’t come out for two, three or 10 days.’
But working hard was no guarantee of safety, or release.
‘The people there who worked really hard all almost died,’ Yoo recalled.
And then there were the accidents, which were commonplace, and sometimes fatal.
‘Many people died from explosions or gas accidents while working in the mines,’ he said.
But there was no room for dissent or complaints among the workers.
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‘You could be put to death or taken away to a prison camp if you protest, so there’s nothing to do but work,’ Yoo said.
‘If you rebelled, you’d be caught. Many people were executed and shot, and many people were dragged off to political prison camps, but if you did as you were ordered quietly, you weren’t tortured.’
But there was one thing they couldn’t take away from Yoo over the course of the years: the thought he would one day see his home again.
‘That there would be a day when I could go back to my homeland — that I would be brought back. This was my only dream. I didn’t have any other dreams there,’ he told MailOnline.
THE 120,000 PEOPLE IMPRISONED IN CAMPS FOR BEING ‘DISLOYAL’
North Korea is estimated to hold up to 120,000 people in political prison camps for perceived disloyalty to the regime.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry report released last year detailed human rights abuses at the camps including arbitrary execution, torture, rape and infanticide.
The chairman of the commission, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, described the human rights abuses in the country ruled by Kim Jong-un as reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
That day finally came in 2000, when he was 71, several years after the death of his wife, who encouraged him to return south before the end of his life.
Unlike a solider this week, however, he did not have to brave the minefields of the demilitarized zone.
Instead, with the help of a broker, he crossed the Tumen River into China, from which he boarded a flight for a new start in South Korea.
Yoo said: ‘I waited for the relationship between South and North Korea to be resolved and for reunification, but it never came so I just returned here.’
Among those waiting for him was his 94-year-old father, who died just weeks after they were briefly reunited.
‘He thought I was dead,’ said Yoo. ‘But I came back alive so he was shocked.’
Fifteen years later, Yoo is not free of the scars of his time working underground. He continues to suffer from health problems from decades of inhaling dust particles deep underground.
‘Because I worked in the mines for so long, my lungs are very bad,’ he said. ‘My airways bear the mark of that. So I don’t feel well.’
But he is far luckier than others caught in the crossfire of the two countries in the early 50s.
Yoo was among thousands of POW who North Korea failed to repatriate at the end of the war. Some estimates put the number as high as 70,000.
As of 2013, 80 former POWs had managed to make their way back to South Korea by way of brokers.
Yoo said: ‘They were were forced to work in the mines until their 60s and when they couldn’t be worked anymore they were thrown out into society. With less surveillance, they were able to escape secretly.’
‘At first, they called us prisoners of war, but then, to get us to work and to order us around, they didn’t call us POWs and gave us North Korean citizenship,’ said Yoo.
‘They monitor you but on the surface, as part of a facade, they don’t call you a POW. But if you do anything wrong you’ll be taken away somewhere quietly.’
Today, Yoo is dedicating his twilight years to raising awareness of the plight of his fellow POWs as the head of the Association of Returned Korean POWs.
The South Korean government has been unable to secure the release of any POWs, with North Korea repeatedly rebuffing calls for cooperation.
‘It’s a shame the South Korean government can’t fulfill its responsibility until the end for people from South Korea who were made prisoners of war,’ he said.
I thought when the time came, since South Korea has a government and a president, they would get me. But that time never came.’
The former solider has only the harshest of words for the North Korea regime that stole the prime years of his life.
‘What I want to say to North Korea is, haven’t you abused our POWs enough?’ said Yoo. ‘Please send the elderly POWs, who’ve had so much of their time wasted, home now so they can die.’
Yoo also hopes that Westerners from countries that supported South Korea in the Korean War will not forget about the tragic division of his country and the fate of the POWs left behind.
‘I had a sense of duty to let Korean and international society know about the people who died miserably there,’ he said.
‘In the future, I hope you [the international community] will take an interest in the Korean problem until reunification comes… just like you helped us during the Korean War. I hope the UN countries that participated will help us until the end. That’s my request.’