A chapter from Shattered by the Wars is published in 2014 Bacopa Literary Review
Seoul is free again but not for us
Daihan-mingook, Mansei—Long live, Republic of Korea. The people shouted as they marched on the streets of Seoul. Our government is back to Seoul. We are free again!
The marching North Korean soldiers, with their machine-like precision and with rifles on their shoulders, were gone. The pictures of their smiling leader, Kim Il-Sung, hanging wherever we turned our heads were torn down by our young people. Those pictures were set on fire, were turned into flames and finally into ashes. On the heap of the ashes, and amidst the stench of corpses in the streets, the people walked the streets of Seoul shouting Mansei. But their joy was mingled with sorrow for those who had lost their loved ones and those whose houses were destroyed by the bombs from the air and the artillery shells from the ground. There was also great hatred toward the communists who caused this unnecessary tragedy. Those people who had actively supported the North Korean regime during their seizure of Seoul were marked. Soon they and their families would be harassed by the South Korean police and neighbors.
It was a sinister period for us. People’s emotions were tense. They had lost family members. Their homes had been destroyed. They wanted revenge against those who had supported the communists. They wanted revenge against those families who had harbored the communist sympathizers. And as Little Aunt had said, we were one of them.
Mother was worried about my safety. I was worried about our safety. Any day, an angry mob might tear down our front door, smash into our house with clubs in their hands, and beat us to death, screaming, You communist beasts. You are not worthy to live. Or any day the police might come, put us in handcuffs, and drag us to prison.
“Mother,” I said, the day after our soldiers returned to Seoul. “I’m scared.”
“I am too,” Mother said. “Especially about you. A fourteen-year-old boy. Big enough to be handled like a man by police.”
“Why don’t we go and stay with Little Aunt?”
“Why don’t you go alone?” Mother said.
“Why not together?”
“I’m not going without you,” I said.
“I know, but…”
“Your father,” Mother said. “How would he feel if he finds no one at home?”
Isn’t it better for him to find no one at home than to see our dead bodies? I thought. Also I don’t think he’s alive anyway. I stopped short of telling her that Father had probably been killed and that waiting for him would be useless.
“I just don’t feel right going into hiding without waiting for your father,” Mother said.
Should I tell her how I feel? Better for Father to find no one at home than to see our dead bodies? It’s not the time to act with our feelings, but to act with our heads? But looking at Mother’s face, it was not the time to reason but to agree with her way. So we waited for Father. We waited for Father’s knocking at the door, saying, Open the door, Yubo—Honey. I’m home. We also dreaded hearing the crashing of the door by an angry mob. We dreaded the police banging at our door and taking us away in handcuffs. But there was nothing we could do, but wait and pray.
We waited for days for Father’s knocking at the door, but it did not come. We dreaded hearing the crashing of the door, but the mob did not come and harm us. We dreaded banging on the door by the police, like the Japanese police, any time of the day or the night. The police came, but they didn’t bang. Instead, they knocked only during the day. They came and questioned us trying to find Hi-Bum. We told them that he had left the day before Seoul was retaken, and that he never returned, but they did not believe us. They suspected that he was in hiding somewhere, and we knew his whereabouts. The police came several more times unannounced. They looked in the attic, searched the basement, checked under the floors, scoured the barn, and combed every possible place that a person could hide, but he was nowhere to be found. But they kept asking the same question over and over, Where is your communist son? Mother’s answer was always the same, I don’t know, Sir.
One day there was a knock at the door. I went to the door, Mother following me. A man in light-green uniform stood in front of us.
“I am Detective Lee from the Seoul Security Office,” the man said. “I am here to find out where Chai Hi-Bum is.”
“We don’t know,” Mother replied.
Detective Lee ignored Mother’s reply. Then he smiled and looked at me.
“Is Hi-Bum your brother?”
“Let me talk to you,” he said inviting himself into the house.
“He does not know where his brother is,” Mother said.
Detective Lee acted as if he did not hear her.
“Let’s go to your father’s office,” he said looking up the stairway.
As we walked up the stairs, I heard Mother’s pleading voice.
“Sir,” she said, “he doesn’t know where his brother is.”
“Lady,” he said sounding irritated. “I will soon find out.”
“Please Sir,” Mother pleaded as I opened the door to Father’s office, “please don’t hurt the innocent boy. He really does not know.”
Once in the room, he closed the door. He also pulled down the window shades. He sat at Father’s round table and told me to sit across from him.
“How old are you?” he asked sounding very friendly.
“I’m fourteen, Sir,” I replied with my head down.
“Do you know where your father is?”
“I don’t know, Sir,” I said. “Mother and I have been waiting for him since two North Korean officers took him away two months ago.”
He looked at me without saying a word.
“Didn’t your brother work for the communists?” He asked.
“Didn’t he find out where his father was?”
“Mother asked him,” I said, “but he wasn’t able to find out.”
“I don’t know, Sir.”
“What a worthless son he is,” he scoffed. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know, Sir.”
“So you don’t know where your Father is,” he chuckled. “And you don’t know where your traitor brother is.”
“OK, young man,” his voice turned firmer. “I will not punish you if you tell me the truth.”
“Where is your brother?” His voice turned threatening.
“I really don’t know, Sir,” I said, my voice trembling.
“You look like an honest boy, but you are lying,” he said. “I talked to your neighbors, and one said that he saw your brother sneaking out of your house last night.”
“He is lying,” I said. “Sir, my father told me never to lie.”
He looked straight into my eyes without a word. He reached to his shirt pocket and pulled out a pencil.
“Put your left hand on the desk,” he said.
I put my hand on the desk wondering, What is he going to do? He put the pencil between my index and middle fingers and turned. It tickled a little, and I thought it was kind of fun. Funny. What is he doing this for? I wondered. But when he tightened my two fingers with his thick fingers and started turning the pencil, I cringed. It hurt. Really hurt.
“Please don’t, Sir,” I pleaded. “It hurts.”
“That’s good,” he said. He squeezed my fingers harder. “Where’s your brother?”
The pain was excruciating. I wished I knew where damn Brother was so that I could tell the detective and didn’t have to go through this torture. But I did not know.
“I wish I knew,” I said grimacing from pain. “But I really… really don’t know, Sir,”
I started to sweat from the pain. After receiving the same answer several more times, he loosened his grip. I felt so relieved and my shoulders stooped.
“Thank you. Thank you very much, Sir,” I said, taking a deep breath.
He looked at me for a few seconds without saying a word.
Then he said with his voice softening, “Young man, I have a son like you, and I am sorry to hurt you. But my job is to find your traitor brother.”
He patted my back as if he was really sorry. He told me that as a citizen of South Korea, I had an obligation to report Hi-Bum’s whereabouts. Then he opened the door and walked down the stairs.
After massaging my fingers to ease the pain, I came out of the room and saw Mother sitting in the middle of the stairway. Shaking and staring at me with frightened round eyes. Her face was white as a ghost. As I approached her, she tried to say something, but no words came out. I sat next to her, holding her shaking hands. I wanted to pray to God, but I didn’t think God would come to our aid anyway. He didn’t before. I carefully led her to her bed and sat next to her until she became calm.
After the detective’s visit, there was a lull. No police visited us for a week. Instead, three of Mother’s church friends visited her, and Mother shared with them what the detective had done to her son a week before. They had pity on me. They asked me to come and sit in the middle of them. One lady put her hand on my right knee, another lady’s hand on my back, and the third lady’s hand on my left knee. Mother sat in front of me. They prayed their long prayers, each taking a turn.
“Please give this young man strength to go through this trial…”
“Let him know that You, who even look after lilies of the field that perish within days, will keep him in Your loving care through this trial …”
“Let him know that You are training him to be an instrument of Your peace…”
“Let him learn that by trusting in You that he can go through the valley of the shadow of death and come out strong to face whatever the future has for him…”
I sat there feeling trapped by these well-meaning ladies and hoping that they would stop these long prayers so that I could go out, breathe the fresh air, and jump around.
Mother also worried that the police did not check on us for days because Hi-Bum might have been arrested.
“The police must have arrested Hi-Bum,” Mother said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t stop banging at our door.”
Mother’s attention now was on Hi-Bum. She recalled horror stories of how the communists in prison were treated. How they were beaten, hung upside down with their feet tied to the ropes on the ceiling for hours at a time. How the police pricked the prisoners with needles poking between their fingernails and flesh. How the police put their burning cigarette butts out on prisoners’ faces. Mother spent much time in her prayer closet. Praying. Praying for Hi-Bum’s safety. Praying that Hi-Bum would be treated humanely if he were in prison. Praying that Hi-Bum would finally see the light and turn to God for his salvation.
Then one afternoon a policeman, Officer Kim Sang-Wook, came and asked us to go to the neighborhood police station which was a ten-minute walk from home. We followed behind him, Mother and I glancing at each other wondering what the police were going to do to us. When we entered the station, a policeman with thin eyes and a flat nose sat with his feet on his desk, smoking a cigarette dangling down his small mouth. The smoke from his cigarette gently floated up toward the ceiling. We stood at the entrance behind Officer Kim, wondering what they were going to do to us.
“Captain,” Officer Kim saluted to the thin-eyed police with his feet on his desk. “I brought Mother and a brother of Chai Hi-Bum.”
“The mother of the traitor and his brother?” Captain said in his squeaky voice, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth. He glared at us.
“Yes, Sir,” Officer Kim replied.
“You, two, stand over there.” Captain pointed the wall next to the door.
Officer Kim guided us to the wall. I stood there with my head down, wondering. Is he going to order Officer Kim to give us the pencil torture like Detective Lee did? Or is he going to have Officer Kim to prick our fingers with a needle? Or is he going to hang us on the ceiling upside down with our feet tied to a rope, and scare us to confess?… Oh God, I prayed. Whatever they may do, please let them do it to me. But not to my mother.
“So was your husband a Christian minister?” Captain asked Mother with a hint of smile on his face.
“Yes,” Mother said looking down the floor.
“And does your Christian minister have a communist son?”
Mother did not respond putting her folded hands over her bosom as in prayer.
“Answer me, Woman,” Captain’s voice turned loud. “Is your communist son a Christian?”
“No.” Mother’s soft resigned voice.
Captain’s voice turned cynical.
“How can a minister, who can’t save his own son, save others to be Christians?” Captain laughed, pointing his cigarette finger at Mother .
“And you told my men,” Captain chuckled, “that your husband was kidnapped by the communists?”
“Yes.” Mother’s answer.
“And your communist son didn’t do anything to save him?”
“And do you think we are that stupid to believe you?” Captain shouted in his high-pitched, squeaky voice. “You communist whore.”
How can he call my mother a communist whore? I was upset and wanted to shout at him. But I also knew what would happen if I did. I was angry and fearful at the same time.
“She is telling you the truth, Sir,” I said.
“Shut up, you, brat,” Captain growled at me with his thin piercing eyes. “You, come over here.”
As I walked over and stood by his desk, Officer Kim followed and stood next to me.
“Boy,” he said. “Look straight at my eyes.”
From my childhood, Mother had reminded me not to look straight at elders’ eyes as a sign of respect, and I followed Mother’s advice. And it had become my habit. When Captain asked me to look straight at his eyes, I just couldn’t. I just kept my head down.
“I told you to look straight at me,” Captain shouted.
“Captain,” I heard Mother speak, “he does that as a sign of respect as I taught him as a child.”
“Shut up, you, a communist whore,” the captain said. “I didn’t ask you.”
He is again calling my mother a whore. How can he say such a thing to the greatest human being in the world? I straightened myself, looked at him straight in his eyes, and said in a defiant tone, “She is not a whore, Sir.”
“Are you talking back to me?” Captain shouted standing. Then he reached over the desk and slapped me with his calloused hand. The force of his hand made me jerk.
“Please.” I heard Mother’s pleading.
“Shut up,” the captain said sitting down and lighting a cigarette. “You are all communists and liars. Your husband is a communist in a preacher’s garb. He is not kidnapped, but escaped to the north. You know where your communist son is, and you don’t tell us.”
“OK, you brat,” Captain said. “Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know, Sir.”
“I am getting sick of listening to your lies,” he said. “Where is your worthless communist brother?”
“He really doesn’t know, Captain,” Mother spoke behind me.
“Shut up. I didn’t ask you,” Captain screamed. “That does it.”
“Officer Kim.” Captain made eye contact with Officer Kim.
I saw Officer Kim pulling out his revolver from the holster. I heard him cock the revolver. Then he placed the barrel against my temple. It felt cold and hard.
“Where’s your brother?” Captain asked.
“I don’t know, Sir.” That’s only answer I knew.
“Where’s your brother?” Captain asked me again.
Is there something that I can say that will make the captain stop asking the same question? I asked myself.
“The night before the U.N. soldiers entered Seoul,” I said, “Brother came home and took a few of his belongings and left us. He didn’t tell us where he was going.”
“I didn’t ask you to explain,” Captain yelled. “Now, the last time….Where’s your brother?”
I closed my eyes ignoring his question. What’s the use of answering? He’s not going to believe me anyway.
“That does it.” Captain sounded final. “Detective Kim… Go ahead.”
I heard the pulling of the trigger and the barrel of the revolver jerking on my temple. I imagined the bullet speeding through my head, making holes through my skull and flying out the other side, covered with blood and brain matter. But I felt nothing. I heard no blasting sound of the bullet. Instead, a dead silence.
Then I heard a voice, Oh my God… Mother’s voice. I heard someone falling. I turned. Mother was on the floor. Slouched. Staring at me with her sunken round eyes. The same eyes I saw when I had walked out of Father’s office with Detective Lee a week ago. Her bent arms reaching out toward me. Trembling. I rushed to her, knelt down, and put my arm around her shoulder. She stared at me with round eyes as if she was seeing a ghost.
“Mother, I’m OK,” I said. “I’m alive.”
She didn’t say a word. She stared at me with her mouth drooping open.
“Mother, I’m OK,” I repeated. “I’m alive.”
I heard a creaking sound of a chair. I turned. It was Captain getting out of his chair, dousing his cigarette butt on the ash tray. He did not look at us. But he looked solemn—not harsh and scornful. He walked to the back door, opened it, and walked out without a word.
That night in bed, I was very depressed. Questions swirled around in my mind keeping me from falling asleep. Why does the world have to be this way? Why does such a kind and caring person like Mother have to suffer so much? I was frustrated that I could not help her. I wished that she could unload all her burdens on my young body so that she could have some repose. I was a fourteen year old boy. She was a burdened, weary fifty-six year old woman. It would have been much easier for me to carry the weight of her pain and suffering on my back.
I also wondered why I was born. I did not ask to be born into this painful world, and to see Mother suffer. I was tired of seeing her harassed by the Japanese, South Koreans and North Koreans. I was frustrated at feeling helpless. I also felt sorry for myself and Mother, for we belonged nowhere. I was angry at Hi-Bum, who had brought us so much suffering for his political stand. I was angry at Father for being a Christian minister, who had brought suffering on himself and the family because of his faith in God. I was angry at God for not coming to the aid of His children. I thought that God would reward those who believed and honored Him while punishing those who ignored Him. What I witnessed was the opposite. The communists and the Japanese who scorned Him prospered while those who followed Him suffered. God seemed far, far away!