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A Son’s Long Struggle to Clear His Family’s Name Is Only Half Won

SEOUL, South Korea — The soldier spoke in a shaky voice, describing how he had lived like a beggar in South Korea and smoked “cigarette butts thrown by American G.I.s.” As he informed listeners over the radio, he had fled his South Korean unit in Vietnam, defecting to the “bosoms” of North Korea.

South Korea labeled the 23-year-old soldier, Ahn Hak-soo, as a defector, and his relations as potential enemies of the state. His brother, Ahn Yong-soo, mentioned that when he was a teen, he was tortured ​by navy intelligence brokers who used electrical energy or water laced with salt and pepper​. Later, he mentioned they compelled him to stop his job as a schoolteacher.

South Korea, which as soon as victimized harmless residents within the identify of guarding towards the Communist North, remains to be struggling to come back to phrases with its previous.

Nearly 320,000 South Korean troops served in Vietnam, the most important overseas contingent combating alongside the Americans. But after they withdrew in 1973, their prime commander, Lt. Gen. Lee Se-ho, claimed that no South Korean soldier was held prisoner. Mr. Lee’s command insisted that a number of lacking troopers, together with Hak-soo, weren’t prisoners of struggle, however both deserters or defectors not price repatriating, in response to declassified paperwork.

Mr. Ahn helped shatter that official narrative.

In 2009​, South Korea lastly acknowledged Hak-soo as a prisoner of struggle, the primary Vietnam War veteran so designated by the nation. The authorities now believes he was captured by Vietcong guerrillas and kidnapped to North Korea, which used him for propaganda​.

“In South Korea, few have been interested in ​Vietnam War ​P.O.W.’s,” mentioned Mr. Ahn, 67, a Christian pastor. “People considered being held prisoner by the enemy shameful and dishonorable.”

Mr. Ahn continues to combat for a proper investigation and an apology.

After greater than 20 lawsuits, ​South Korean courts acknowledged Mr. Ahn as a sufferer of torture​ and paid him $73,000 in damages however refused to reinstate him as a schoolteacher. Another courtroom ​denied awarding compensation​ for his household’s sufferings​​, accepting the federal government’s argument that there was no proof of wrongdoing and the statute of limitations​ had lengthy expired. North Korea has ​not admitted to kidnapping his brother​ or confirmed his destiny​.

“The South Korean government clearly neglected its duty to protect its own citizens,” mentioned Heo Man-ho, a political scientist at Kyungpook National University.

“At least Ahn Hak-soo had a brother who has fought tenaciously to clear his name,” he added, “but no one has stepped forward for other Vietnam War soldiers who were recorded as killed in action but likely ended up in North Korea.”

Mr. Ahn’s combat is a part of the nation’s broader reflection over previous human rights violations​ that officers justified by pointing to the Communist menace from the North. In May, South Korea’s Parliament handed a invoice to relaunch the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the fee’s investigations into such violations had been halted in 2010 ​beneath a conservative ​authorities.

Mr. Ahn plans to take his household’s case to the fee​​.

“When my brother turned up in North Korea​, it​ was enough for the authorities to label him a defector,” he mentioned. “​And our ​​entire ​family was shattered.”

Hak-soo, the second youngster within the household of 5 sons in Pohang, South Korea, was dispatched to Vietnam in 1964 as a radio man with the First Korean Mobile Army Surgical Hospital close to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. In his final letter residence, he mentioned he would return on Sept. 16, 1966. He went lacking per week earlier than ​on a visit to select up medical provides.

During the Cold War, South Korea blacklisted households whose relations ended up in North Korea, ensuring that they didn’t advance in its staunchly anti-Communist society. Counterespionage brokers surveilled them, typically extracting false confession​s through torture that they have been involved with their relations within the North.

After Hak-soo confirmed up in North Korea, Mr. Ahn’s father was compelled to stop as a major college principal. Mr. Ahn, then a teen, was known as “commie’s little brother” by his highschool lecturers.

The Defense Security Command, the counterespionage arm of the navy, had its undercover native workplace adjoining to his college. When Mr. Ahn was exterior, he mentioned, armed officers there would peek over the wall and hail him over for interrogation.

“An​ agent put a pistol on my head and pulled the trigger,” Mr. Ahn wrote in “Whitewash and Truth,” a​ memoir he printed in 2014. “It had a tremendous impact — as if my brain exploded in a terrible sound of death.”

When Mr. Ahn turned a major schoolteacher in 1975, the brokers​ appeared at his college in Seoul, interrogating and beating him within the janitor’s workplace. He was compelled to resign 5 years later and signal a doc telling him to maintain quiet about what occurred — or he can be punished for “an act that benefits the enemy.”

Mr. Ahn has moved his household 31 occasions, however he mentioned the brokers adopted him like “leeches.” In 1984, he flew to Britain to review divinity on the University of Aberdeen and later at Cambridge. Government brokers confirmed up there, too — an incident so traumatic that Mr. Ahn needed to curtail his research and return residence for medical therapy, a South Korean pastor who befriended him in London mentioned in a signed assertion submitted to courts.

The Defense Security Command put Mr. Ahn’s household beneath surveillance till a minimum of 1993, in response to information from the group, which was reorganized and renamed in 2018 as a part of a reform of the once-infamous navy spy company.

Mr. Ahn was considering of emigrating overseas for good in 2008 when a reporter despatched him a 380-page file of not too long ago declassified Foreign Ministry paperwork that talked about his brother’s identify. ​Hopeful that he may drive some change, he filed a number of freedom of knowledge requests with ​navy and intelligence businesses.

In the paperwork, he discovered that his brother’s unit in Vietnam had hushed the disappearance for weeks.

One military doc mentioned that Hak-soo “went over” to North Korea “disgruntled.” One mentioned he had run up “a large debt because of his complicated relationships with women,” so he “defected” after which was “kidnapped” to North Korea.

Another doc mentioned it was clear that he was “kidnapped” to the North, however nonetheless known as him a “defector.” Some paperwork misstated Hak-soo’s residence tackle, age and navy serial quantity, in addition to the ​12 months he went lacking.

He additionally discovered from the information {that a} North Korean spy, who defected to South Korea in 1976, informed his interrogators that Hak-soo was executed in ​​1975 after a failed try to flee the North by way of the border with China. In the navy file, the previous spy, Kim Yong-kyu, was quoted as saying that Hak-soo “regretted defecting to the freedom-less North.”

Mr. Kim testified earlier than a authorities panel in 2009, saying that North Korea lied when it mentioned the soldier defected to the North. The panel in the end dominated that Hak-soo was kidnapped, a ruling that compelled the navy to acknowledge him as its first P.O.W. in Vietnam.

Such instances, mentioned Han Sung-hoon, a sociologist at Yonsei University in Seoul, present how anti-Communist businesses have defended their actions by “regenerating an antagonistic relationship with North Korea, even fabricating spy cases if needed.”

Mr. Han, who had served within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mentioned the investigations of human rights violations have typically been stymied by the reluctance of perpetrators to come back clear for worry that they’d be “branded betrayers and ostracized.”

Mr. Ahn is undeterred. He has continued to gather paperwork and statements from anybody who had details about his brother, which he plans to current earlier than the newly revived fee.

“Both Koreas used and then abandoned my brother,” Mr. Ahn mentioned.


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