As Kang Ik-joong said of his installation on the Thames: his motive in collecting drawings from the North Koreans displaced by the Korean War was actually to collect their stories. Here are some of those stories, as shared on the Totally Thames website.
Park Yun Ok (age 95)
“My name is Park Yun Ok. I was born in 1921. My hometown is a small village called Oh Eun outside of Hamhung City. I have not returned since I was 24 years old.
During World War II, I was living in a town in Manchuria, Japanese-occupied China. When one day fighter airplanes that I could not see, but that I could hear attacked the village – dropping bombs and spraying bullets. In the chaos I hid inside my home and huddled close to my infant daughter trying to protect her. One of those airplanes shot me in the leg. It was only after the village was destroyed that I realised my leg was bleeding. My daughter and I were alone.
For four days I walked carrying my daughter on my back. My leg was bleeding so much that my foot kept slipping inside my shoe. The skin on my sole peeled off. I was trying to return home. It was so far…
A stranger who saw me walking brought me into his home. I was bleeding to death. He took one of his chickens, slaughtered it, and used its flesh to absorb the bullet poisoning from my wound. With his wife, they nursed me back to health until I could walk again to leave to return home.
Back in Oh Eun, I reunited with my family when my husband found me there. Korea was dividing between North and South, war was imminent again. My husband decided life would be better in the South so I followed him, while most my family decided to stay behind. The borders closed behind us – borders to this day we cannot cross. We settled in Seoul, and then immigrated to the Americas – first Paraguay, then Argentina and finally the United States in search of a better life.
Seventy years later, I live in New York. My mother and my father have passed on. Many of my brothers and sisters have passed on too. In the chaos of war, we each had a choice to make: to leave or to stay. But we never imagined we would never be able to return home. All I have left of my family, of my home are memories, memories that are fading in my old age. I can never return. I will never return.”
Hwang Hyosoup (age 80)
Very close to the demilitarized zone is my home town called Gaesung. My father was the owner of one of the biggest hospitals in that town. I came to the South leaving my beloved home and family. Following my father’s footsteps, I also studied medicine and became a doctor. I would like to return one day to the hospital that my father built in the North. I waited for the reunification of North and South for so long but sadly, it is taking so long. But I am still waiting.
Kim Eunsuk (age 80)
My father, my sister and I unwillingly left my mother and my other siblings in the North and escaped to the South when the war broke out. My sibling who escaped with us got sick in Busan and died and somehow I was left alone in an orphanage. It was a very hard and lonely childhood. A day didn’t go by without me thinking about my family. What helped me survive all these years was the hope and dream that one day I will go back to the North to rejoin with my family. It has been a hard life.
Lee Jemeng (age 87)
How can I even begin to express in words the continuous longing for my family and my home town. I have waited so many years with hope that one day I may return but I am getting old…and tired. It hurts so much to even think about it so I try to not think. But it’s difficult to erase a part of my life that is so dear to me – a place with wonderful memories where I laughed and cried with my family and friends. Do you think that one day I will be able to go back and fulfil my dream?