Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi Biography: Refugee, part 1

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This section of Senior Grandmaster Choi's autobiography depicts war in some graphic detail. If you are under the age of 12, ask your parent or guardian if it is all right for you to read it.

I was born in Hŭngnam in what is now North Korean, though I only lived there for four years before the outbreak of the Korean War. Hŭngnam is a harbor city, one of the ten largest cities in North Korea, most well known for its fertilizer. That is where my father – an engineer – worked, at the Hŭngnam Fertilizer Factory. There were six of us at that time, at the outbreak of the Korean War, my parents, my older brother and sister, myself, and my younger brother Young Pyo Choi, the future grand master. He was just two or three at the start of the war. Also my maternal grandparents lived with us, and only a short distance away lived my paternal grandparents.

Hŭngnam is a harbor city, and I remember well the smell of drying squid and cod that the fishing fleets would bring back from the sea each day. Also using the harbor were huge tankers that transported the fertilizer all over Korea. Fish and fertilizer is what Hŭngnam was known for.

The climate is very similar to Montreal's, very cold in winter, but moderate and pleasant in summer. I have never been back to Hŭngnam, though I hear of it in the news from time-to-time. It is where North Korea is building its nuclear bomb.

Korea was in upheaval at that time, in 1950. In just forty years, it had gone from a kingdom, through Japanese occupation, to communism. The communists were running everything in the north of Korea. The slaves – the poor workers – were revolting against the land owners and those that collaborated with the Japanese. China and Russia were helping, and there was much turmoil.

The U.S. military was bombing the city, because a factory that can make fertilizer can make bombs. We were bombed all the time by the Air Force. Everyday, bombs were falling, and we spent a lot of time in the basement. When the sirens sounded, everyone ran for the basement or, if one was nearby, a bunker. All the houses had basements, not walk-in basements like we have in America, but rather we climbed down through a hole in the floor. We would huddle there, under the floor as dust and dirt rained down on top of us. We came out white with dust.

My father, who was an engineer at the fertilizer plant, would not be rushed however, even when the bombs were falling. One day, the sirens sounded and the bombs were falling, but he did not run to the shelter. Instead he paused to look at a Russian pig by the side of the road, even as all the bombs were falling around him. It was a huge pig, four or five times the size of a Korean pig. Instead of rushing to the bunker, my father stood there and looked at this big pig, laughing at its size. This was how my father was, and a good thing too, as just then a bomb landed on the bunker at the factory where he was assigned and destroyed it completely. My father could not be pushed, and in this case, it saved his life. This is a trait of many named Choi.

So, at this time, when I was six, living in Hŭngnam, there was much turmoil and death. There were daily bombings of the city by the U.S. Military and the South Koreans. Also, the North Korean Communists were everywhere, always pushing my family to join the party. They wanted everyone to join. They wanted everyone to come to the meetings. Every night there were meetings! The Communists wanted to meet every night, for civil courts and for spreading their ideology – that the slaves were now free from the landowners. The landowners had been overthrown, and so there were many scores to be settled, and the Communists settled them with a civil tribunal. Judges would come from the state, and the laborers would testify to what the landowners or the non-Communists did during the Japanese occupation. Then the enemies of the Communists would be executed or sent to forced labor camps. There was much chaos at the time. Many deaths.

The Communists were always coercing the people to sign the papers and join the party. Become loyal Communists, they said, and swear loyalty to Communism. Then they would call you to work on the campaign, or go to war, or report on your neighbors, or whatever they wanted you to do. They wanted your full cooperation, and so everyone was pressured to join. They asked every family to join. But my family could not do so.

My aunt was married to a South Korean admiral. Admiral Chung Nam Kim was his name, the father of Grand Master Kim from Chicago. And so we had ties to the South Koreans. Not only was what the Communists were doing wrong, but my maternal uncle was a high ranking officer in the south. If the Communists had found out, they would not have just wanted us to join the party. We would have been imprisoned or killed.

The Communists continued to come to our houses, all the time, asking us to join. Those who said no were sent to labor camps, as far away as Russia, to mine stone, coal, or iron ore. Many of our friends and family were sent there by the Communists, and none of them came back. They asked my parents repeatedly to join the Communist party, with the threat of being sent to the mines behind the request. But my father was a valuable asset, as an engineer at the fertilizer factory. He was too useful to send away to the mines, but still they asked. My father thought he was safe. Stubbornness had saved him from the bombs; he figured stubbornness would save him from Communism.

Finally, the Communists had enough and they arrested him. They took him to jail. There they shaved his head, wrapped his body in wire, and placed him in a cell. He was very calm, just as when the bombs were falling, but very stubborn. My mother told me later that he said, "I didn’t do anything wrong. Why are you keeping me here?" The Communists did not reply. My father said, "I will cooperate with everything you want." Still they would not answer. Finally, he said, "You can't keep me here. If you do I will kill myself by biting my tongue." This was a common way that prisoners who were bound with wire would kill themselves.

The Communists discussed this and decided then that they had had enough of my father and his calmness. They took him to a ditch with many other prisoners. They lined my father and the rest of the prisoners up in front of the ditch and shot them, leaving them all to die.

This was in November of 1951. The Americans, with the South Koreans, were fighting the North Koreans and the Chinese. Back and forth they went, and sometimes the Americans were near us. Sometimes they held the harbor, but when they didn't, always they were bombing the factory and the city.

When the Communists took my father, we were all scared. We didn’t think he would come back from prison. But then he appeared at the house, his head shaved. He had survived the firing squad, though the prisoners around him had not. He had fainted and fallen into the ditch. When he awoke, he was alone. So he came home.

He knew that he could not stay now. If the Communists found him, they would try to kill him again. He had to leave the north immediately. My parents decided that the Communists would not hurt the women and children, so only my father and grandfather fled.

The South Korean army and the Americans were nearby, but they were retreating as the Chinese joined the war. My father arranged through the connections we had with my uncle the Admiral to retreat with the army. My father and grandfather took a military car and drove south away from the rest of the family, following the American and UN soldiers. They both escaped to the southern parts of Korea, and I did not see them again for many months.

But they were safe now. The Communists thought he was dead, and for the moment they would not bother the women and children. The family was safe, but separated.

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