Kim Sung-tae

South Korean POW who escaped from North Korea

Kim Sung-tae was a prisoner of war who escaped from North Korea. At the age of 19, he fought in the Korean War. He was captured five days after the war began on June 25, 1950, during a battle with the North Korean army and was taken to North Korea.

Kim Sung-tae: I was fighting in Deokjeong, Dongducheon, and the company commander got injured and called out, ‘Hey, Sung-tae, Sung-tae.’ I carried him down and I got injured as well. I was captured on June 30 after a few battles.

He was imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, North Korea.

Kim: I was in dire straits. After we woke up, they served us food on aluminum plates, but when they reduced the portions, we grew weak. I had lice, little creatures, everywhere. When I swept the floor to clean the room, I could collect a bucket full of lice. Prisoners suffered malnutrition and ate poorly. We got skinnier. We couldn’t bathe or do laundry. It was a savage life.

He was mobilized for rear-guard projects such as taking care of military horses in the vicinity of Sinuiju. He tried to escape three times but was arrested, brought before a military tribunal and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Kim: I was caught (during the escape). They said, ‘You conspired to take your men to South Korea.’ The armistice agreement was signed on July 27, but my case was referred to their military tribunal on July 25. I had to spend 13 years in prison, with three more years deprived of voting rights.

Kim was released after serving 13 years in prison and sent to a coal mine. He worked as a miner for 23 years. He married his wife, who had been exiled from Pyongyang, and she gave birth to two sons. He was constantly monitored because he was a South Korean prisoner of war. His sons also lived miserable lives deprived of public education.

Kim: I was living a very hard life. When I didn't have any food, I went to the collective farm at night and secretly stole some corn. That’s how I raised my children. My sons couldn’t go to college because they were the children of a South Korean soldier, a prisoner of war. They worked at the coal mine. They were not allowed to serve in the military.

In the end, Kim escaped from North Korea with his eldest son in June 2001, leaving behind his wife, who later died of lung cancer, and his second son, who died after being beaten by robbers. They traveled to South Korea via Shenyang, China.

Fifty-one years. That’s how long it took for Kim Sung-tae to return to his hometown.

Kim: I couldn’t tell if I’d landed in paradise or in heaven. From Incheon port to Seoul, all these high-rise buildings had been built, and I thought, ‘Is this really a dream? Could it be real?’

The word 'war' still evokes terrifying memories for Kim Sung-tae, who went through the war and became a prisoner of war.

Kim: The devastation from the war really leads to a miserable life that you can't face with your eyes open. ‘Why on earth should we wage war?’, ‘For whom should we wage war like this?’ I’ve engraved these questions in the bottom of my heart.

Kim’s last wish, as someone over 90 years old, is to tell the world about the miserable life he experienced in North Korea.

Kim: If I can, I want to expose people all over the world to what I experienced in North Korea, what I suffered and how I was not treated like a human being because I was labeled a prisoner of war. I would love to do this.