This short piece appeared in the Time magazine Asia/Pacific edition Dec. 12, 1994. It's not online because Time's archives online, while quite amazing, don't have all the stories from all the editions. I'm publishing it here because I find myself referring to it quite often. It's such an amazing story of human endurance. And the fact that we ever heard the story, let alone that Lieut. Cho escaped North Korea, is nothing short of miraculous. It was a stunningly moving interview.
LIEUT. CHO CHANG HO OF THE SOUTH Korean army was listed as killed in action after Chinese forces overran his artillery unit near Inje in May 1951. After the war, his name was inscribed on the national war memorial in Seoul, and he was all but forgotten. Then one day in 1993, his eldest sister, Cho Chang Sook, 73, a retired college dean, received a letter from Cho postmarked Shenyang, China. The letter was vague about his precise whereabouts, but it prompted the sister to travel to Shenyang. She eventually discovered that her brother, now 64, had survived for 43 years in North Korea and wanted to escape. Against all odds, he finally reached South Korea last October.
Two weeks ago, lean and straight-backed, he put on an army uniform to meet President Kim Young Sam and receive his official discharge and the Unification Medal. Later, sitting in the living room of his sister's comfortable apartment in Seoul, Cho talked with TIME about his hellish years in the north. He spoke slowly because a recent stroke had paralyzed the right side of his face, and he often paused in explaining how he had held despair at bay for so many years. ''I was brought up in a Christian family,'' said Cho, a third- generation Presbyterian. ''I always thought the Lord would save me and return me to my family.''
His odyssey began 43 years ago, when his Chinese captors turned him over to North Korean troops who decided he might be of use to them because he spoke English; they assigned him to a reconnaissance unit. His only thought, Cho said, was to escape. After he revealed his intention to an apparently sympathetic comrade, who turned out to be an informer, Cho was court-martialed and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He spent most of his term in concentration camps in the far north, where he and other prisoners were crammed so tightly into rooms that no one could stretch out to sleep at night. He was rarely let out of the cell and received a daily ration of 300 g of corn and a bowl of watery vegetable soup, barely enough to stay alive. ''Fighting over food was constant,'' he recalled, ''and the strongest were kings. I was always one of the strongest.''
He estimated that 90% of the prisoners died as a result of illness, injury or malnutrition. ''No one wept,'' he said. ''No one expressed sorrow, and no one asked how anyone died.'' Cho was released after 13 years, but the local party office assigned him to work in the Hoha coal mine, near Chunggangjin, on the Chinese border. Accidents claimed many workers' lives there, and Cho's leg was shattered when he was pinned between two coal wagons; the mishap left him with a permanent limp, and his lungs suffered severe damage from prolonged exposure to coal dust.
In 1966 Cho married a North Korean military nurse, Paik Kyung Hee, with whom he had twin sons and a daughter. Almost from the start, the couple was harassed by the secret police -- pressure that strained and eventually destroyed the marriage. In 1972 Paik disappeared, leaving Cho with the children. Five years later he lost his job when lung disease left him too weak to work. To survive, he and his children worked a small illegal garden plot in the mountains. Through all those years he never lost his desire to escape, he said, but the opportunity did not come until North Korea opened its border to barter trade with China in the 1990s.
In early 1992 Cho met a Mr. Lee, a Korean-Chinese trader who frequently visited his neighborhood. Lee agreed to mail a message from Cho to his sister. The letter brought her and, later, other relatives to China, where they struck a deal: for ''a considerable sum,'' as Cho put it, Lee promised to organize his escape. The one thing that held Cho back was his children, but the desire to return home proved to be overpowering. ''I hope they are safe,'' he said of the children, ''but no one knows.''
On the night of Oct. 3, in a driving rain, Cho met Lee by a raft hidden on the North Korean side of the Yalu River. Soldiers who normally patrol the bank had taken shelter from the bad weather. ''You could not see an inch in front of you,'' Cho recalled. ''It was clearly God's will that it was raining like that. Otherwise, we might not have got through.'' He crossed into China but discovered that Chinese and North Korean police were looking for him. With help from sympathizers among the many Korean Chinese in the region, Lee and Cho made their way to the port of Dalian, about 300 km from the border.
The final leg of the escape had been worked out in advance between Lee and Cho's relatives, who by now had contacted the South Korean government for help. They arranged a rendezvous between a Chinese smuggler's boat and a South Korean government vessel. The first attempt, on Oct. 16, failed when the smugglers turned back because of high seas. A week later the vessels made contact about 130 km southwest of Kunsan, a southern port city. After two hours of maneuvering in rough water, the smugglers managed to heave Cho onto the deck of the South Korean vessel. Cho is at home now with his sister, a widow. The remote television tuner befuddles him, and the Seoul streetscape is so confusing that he needs a guide to take a walk. He attends the same Presbyterian church where he worshipped as a youth and gives thanks for his good fortune. Four months ago, at the orders of local officials in Chunggangjin, Cho laid flowers in front of a statue of Kim Il Sung to show his ''grief'' over the Great Leader's death. Now he is a free man. ''I am back where I am entitled to live. I would have no regrets,'' he said last week, ''even if I were to die tomorrow.'' -Edward W. Desmond/Seoul