St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

For two boys in Korea, different tastes of war

West central Florida is home to about 14,000 Korean-Americans, who are among roughly 2-million in the United States. Some of them were in Korea the day their homeland went to war. Here are the stories of two men who now live in the bay area - one whose city was attacked by the North Koreans, the other who became a spy at 14.

DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published July 23, 2003

On a July morning in 1950, Jung Hwan Park played with friends in the streets of Pohang, a city on the eastern seaboard of South Korea.

The 8-year-old saw several other children chomping on something chewy and biting into something dark.

"What are you eating?" he asked.

"Chocolate," one replied.

"Chewing gum," said another.

They had never heard of the stuff.

"Is it delicious?"

The boys grinned. "It is very delicious."

"Where do you get it?"

The kids with the prized sweets directed them toward the harbor.

Park and his friends sprinted down narrow alleys toward the water where they saw a man in military garb, a helmet on his head, a rifle slung over his shoulder. They saw tanks, they saw Navy ships.

The foreigners, the ones they had read about in Robinson Crusoe, had arrived. They brought with them chocolate and chewing gum.

That week, U.S. forces set up in the city of Pohang, anticipating an invasion by North Korean soldiers. The Korean War, which had begun just weeks earlier, was boiling.

Yet the residents of Pohang were told that they were safe, that the South was winning the war. Officials urged residents not to flee the city.

Shortly after Park's first taste of chocolate, North Korea attacked Pohang. That late July day, Park's family joined thousands of others fleeing toward the water.

Communist soldiers moved in and a battle ensued. The residents of Pohang got caught in the crossfire. Men, women and children fell to the ground.

"People were screaming. There were bodies everywhere," recalled Park, now a 61-year-old martial arts instructor living in Tampa. "It was like hell."

Amid the chaos, Park got separated from his parents. Someone grabbed the back of his neck and threw him into a hole in a wall where he landed in a room filled with frightened residents, including his parents.

The family later emerged to a dead city that had been taken over by the North Koreans. They joined a mass exodus southward. For about five days, they walked in stunned silence, passing dead bodies along the way.

"Everybody was scared," he said.

Alongside the road were stretches of muddy rice paddies. A U.S. soldier slogged through the paddies, all alone.

"Ochon," he said to the refugees.

He was lost and needed directions to Ochon, a small town being used as a U.S. military base.

He had been fighting in a war in a foreign country, a war that had nothing to do with him. The young soldier looked tired, scared, exhausted.

"Ochon," he said over and over again.

Paralyzed with fear, no one answered him. Even at 8, Park knew where Ochon was. But he did not dare say a word.

On the other side of the South Korean coast, a 14-year-old South Korean boy was embarking on a dangerous spy mission. For one week in mid September 1950, he played the part of a pesky village boy, peppering North Korean soldiers with questions.

Unbeknownst to them, he had been trained by the Americans to gather intelligence so that they could retake the city of Inchon, thus cutting off the enemy supply line.

How many tanks do you have? How long are you staying? Where are all your fighters?

The boy, Choon Kyung Ko, was among 200 "Volunteers" - teenage boys and girls trained to aid the United States and South Korea.

They slept in farmhouses at night and secretly reported their findings to the Americans. The work was dangerous. Ko saw six cohorts killed with bayonets when their true identities were discovered. But Ko, who had joined the Volunteers without his family's knowledge, embraced the missions.

"My only salvation was to stay with the Marines," recalled Ko, now 66.

When the week of covert operations ended, Ko joined U.S. troops, fighting alongside them and surviving frigid weather and enemy fire. They prayed that they would see tomorrow.

When the war ended with the signing of a truce on July 27, 1953, Ko was just 16. He was a combat veteran.

The Korean War would turn out to be the first of two wars Park would witness. At 22, he left Pohang for Vietnam as a Korean Army combat adviser to the South Vietnamese. It was mid 1967, and the United States had teamed with South Vietnam in fierce fighting against the communist North.

On the night of Jan. 31, 1968, Park was captured by the North Vietnamese in what was later called the Tet Offensive.

He and other prisoners of war were kept in makeshift prisons in the jungles. They walked from camp to camp to avoid detection.

After three months of imprisonment, Park escaped by running across the border to Cambodia. He ran for two days.

Drained, he sat on a creek bed and looked into the horizon.

He thought of the lone soldier who, 17 years earlier, had walked along the muddy rice field, searching for "Ochon." Like him, Park was tired, scared, exhausted. Like him, he was alone. And like him, he had been fighting a war for another country, a war that had nothing to do with him.

Tears streamed down his face.

Park was captured and spent a year and a half in a Cambodian jail alongside murderers and cow thieves.

He immigrated to the United States in 1971, living first in Washington, D.C., and then in New York. He now lives in Tampa and owns several tae kwon do studios and teaches martial arts around the world. Park is also the president of the Federation of Korean Associations of Florida and the former vice president of the Korean Federation of America.

Ko, who was reunited with his family after his war service, was invited to America in 1955 by three U.S. Marines he had befriended. A resident of Pasco County, he and his wife, Joanna, have owned the Quail Hollow Golf and Country Club for 12 years.

Ko, who goes by the name Eddie because someone once told him he was as popular as Eddie Fisher, will be the keynote speaker at a celebration commemorating the signing of the truce in Fort Myers on July 27.

Both men say South Korea would not be as prosperous as it is today had the United States not intervened. They point to North Korea, where people are starving.

"We are appreciative to Americans," said Ko, who also served in the U.S. Army after coming to America. "Who knew that (South Korea) would one day sell cars in America?"

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.