Thousands Of Child Soldiers Died In The Korean War. Survivors Want More Recognition

Jun 25, 2020
Originally published on June 25, 2020 1:17 pm

While many Americans refer to the Korean War as the "forgotten war," it is anything but that in South Korea 70 years after North Korea invaded.

The war lasted from 1950 to 1953 but never formally ended, and tensions between North and South Korea continue to ebb and flow.

Survivors of one little-known group of combatants say they still want proper recognition. They are the former child soldiers.

South Korea's government says it conscripted more than 30,000 soldiers between the ages of 14 and 17 for the Korean War. An estimated 3,000 of them died in the war, according to news reports. Those still alive are approaching 90 years old.

On the desk in Park's office sit a picture of his Buddhist master and a sign showing the Buddhist name the master gave him, written in Chinese, which translates to "Ship to the West." The name refers to Park's mission to help the souls of fallen child soldiers.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

One of them is Park Tae-seung, 87, who lives in Yeongju in South Korea's North Gyeongsang province. Park was 17 when he received his conscription notice in August 1950.

The country was about to fall. Park lived in one of the last areas that had not been taken by North Korean troops, and he felt he had no choice.

"So I went to serve, half willingly, half forced to do it," he says.

Park received a couple of days of training and deployed to the front as a rifleman. He says he ate a few rice balls each day, which did not give him enough energy to lug his 50 pounds of weapons, ammunition and gear up and down the steep hills.

"Child soldiers were physically not as strong as the older soldiers," he recalls. Due to his comparative weakness, he says, "the battle with myself was harder than the battle with the enemy."

That August, North Korean forces pushed U.S. and South Korean troops to the southeast tip of the Korean Peninsula. While defending a 150-mile-long perimeter, the U.S. shipped in troops and supplies through the port of Busan (formerly spelled Pusan).

Park was with U.S., United Nations and South Korean forces in September as they fought their way out of the Pusan Perimeter, advancing into North Korea and capturing the capital, Pyongyang. Park stayed in the city to work as an army medic while other troops pushed north toward the Yalu River.

Park describes his experiences as a child soldier during an interview in his office in Yeongju.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Then by late October, China joined the war on North Korea's side, and drove U.S. and South Korean troops back across the 38th parallel.

On the retreat south, the child soldiers fell behind the older, faster troops. With the enemy hard on their heels, an underage soldier near Park was hit.

"At first he asked me to take him and save him," Park recalls. "But as he became short of breath, he seemed to realize that he couldn't make it. Then he asked me to shoot him."

Park says he believes he never killed an enemy soldier. But he did put his comrade in arms out of his misery.

"I believed that that was what I could do to relieve him of pain," he says. "If we weren't so young, we wouldn't have had to make that kind of sacrifice."

Park's clear, strong voice quavers at the painful memory and trails off into silence.

The Korean War veteran chants Buddhist sutras in his prayer hall to console the spirits of fallen fellow child soldiers.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

In the 1970s, Park found solace in Buddhism, praying daily for the fallen child soldiers.

On one level, he is pained that hardly anyone is left who remembers them. Nearly all of them died before marrying, so "they didn't have any children surviving them. And all their parents have passed away. So I thought I at least needed to console their souls," he says.

But he also prays to repent. "The biggest reason I pray every day is that comrade I killed," he says.

While their story is relatively obscure, some believe the child soldiers saved the nation from defeat.

Lee Sang Ho, a historian at the Institute for Military History, under South Korea's Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, interviewed around 130 of the onetime child soldiers and wrote a book about them.

He notes that Paik Sun-yup, one of the country's most famous wartime generals, "wrote in his memoir that when the North Korean forces came down to the Nakdong River in August, without the child soldiers, the Pusan Perimeter would have been overrun."

Lee says that the former child soldiers lived tough postwar lives.

"They left the army in their early 20s, and therefore couldn't finish middle school or high school," he says. "They basically existed at the bottom of society."

Park spent his postwar life, finding work on construction sites and farms, and for a long time, felt bitter about his fate.

He is angry that the government never apologized or built an official monument to recognize the child soldiers' sacrifices and contributions.

Park organized the former child soldiers and lobbied lawmakers for decades — in vain — to give them proper recognition.

He believes the government is embarrassed at having sent children into war. "That's a violation of the law and of human rights, isn't it?" Park says. (International treaties say nations may not enlist child soldiers.)

He notes that, by contrast, North Korea, which is accused of having an abysmal human rights situation, also had child soldiers during the war but treats them as heroes.

Park is eternally grateful for America's help and prays for GIs who died in the war. But he also believes that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the child soldiers since it had operational control over the South Korean army during the war.

On the wall in Park's office hangs a piece of Chinese calligraphy, which says: "It's a soldier's duty to sacrifice himself for his country." It was written by a Korean revolutionary who fought Japanese colonial rule. To the right is a picture of Park taken during the Korean War.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

"We are not asking the U.S. to take responsibility," he says, "but we are asking for their help in solving this problem, as they shouldn't turn their eyes away from this."

Park says he wrote to U.S. lawmakers about the lack of recognition for underage fighters, but they passed his letter on to Seoul, where it was ignored.

Running low on money and energy, Park disbanded his group of former child soldiers this spring, ending their more than two-decade-long quest for recognition.

Nevertheless, he maintains his daily spiritual discipline, chanting sutras and praying in his Buddhist prayer hall at 5 a.m. Dressed in earth-brown robes, he bows before a South Korean flag and a tablet dedicated to the souls of the fallen child soldiers.

Se Eun Gong and Ha-kyung Kim contributed to this report in Seoul.

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