Civilian calls reached my landline every now and then. They were pleasant distractions for my eyes, strained from poring over old documents to translate and gazing at the computer screen to sort out the administrative backlog. Still, most calls fell outside my remit, and I would direct them to pertinent officers.
I was enveloping an important piece of document to send out when my telephone rang: the same hollow, metronomic buzz that I had heard for months. “I just want a moment of your time,” a voice answered, subdued yet raspy from age. Had he cut to the chase and told me what he wanted, I would have transferred the call to an officer in charge of veterans’ affairs. But he started telling me a story, so I just listened. I relay his words as conscientiously as my memory serves me right, along with necessary background information.
MR. KIM’S STORY
One day in August 1950, Mr. Kim was walking home when the authorities corralled him into a tank landing ship and whisked him off to Japan for a drill. He was just a high schooler then, meaning he is nonagenarian now. The Korean War had broken out two months earlier in June, and the North Korean forces inundated the South with artillery barrages and Soviet tanks. By the time he was shipped off to Yokohama for a crash military training on the outskirts of Tokyo, South Korea’s territory was reduced to a paltry enclave around his hometown, hugging the southeastern corner of the peninsula.
In September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur pulled off the swashbuckling amphibious landing at the peninsular midriff, stunning his adversaries and rapidly reclaiming the South. This famed Inchon Landing turned the tide in favor of the allied forces. Then, intent on a swift victory and the reunification of the Korean peninsula, MacArthur ordered his Eighth Army and X Corps to advance to the Yalu River, the waterway border between China and North Korea.
It turned out Mr. Kim was not the only one forgotten. According to military archives, approximately 180,000 Koreans qualified for wartime merits, but a quarter of them remain unidentified.
Mr. Kim returned to the South Korean port city of Pusan to board a different naval ship, this time bound for North Korea’s northeastern coast. His 7th Infantry Division was to help liberate the North and converge with the Eighth Army. Toward late October 1950, however, alarmed by some UN units that reached the Chinese border, Chinese Communist Forces filed into North Korea. As the Chinese routed and forced the Eighth Army into full retreat, the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division went on the offensive to choke the enemy supply lines and encircle the Chinese from behind.
Mr. Kim found himself on the Kaema Plateau, a highland crowning the northeastern part of the peninsula. Wintertime temperatures used to plunge to -40 F. Not a single critter roamed about in the cold, except for the UN jeeps and frozen boots plodding on the rock-hard soil. Bloodied hands would meld into the rifle barrel as if it were just taken out of the furnace. The frost bit into flesh harder than fire. Stiffer than lumber, corpses were stacked up neatly. No amount of shoveling could gouge a pit in the iced ground to bring solace to the fallen. Then, the real tribulation began on the night of Nov. 27, 1950.
A surreal ruckus of bugling, gonging and chanting pierced through the dead of night. Columns of Chinese soldiers darted over the frozen expanse of a nearby reservoir toward his garrison on an abandoned potato field. “The barrel of my machine gun glowed like a ripe persimmon,” Mr. Kim recalled. Soon enough, the barrel drooped in heat from repeated firing. Overwhelmed by the human waves and blasting mortars, he had to bolt away. Screaming ensued amid sinking bayonets.
Luckily, daylight meant respite when Grumman fighters strafed and bombed the surrounding ridges where the ragtag Chinese holed up. But “the nightfall brought dreadful darkness” as the nocturnal terror resumed. This alternated for days until the dispersed allied forces reconvened southward for a slog to an evacuation point by the coast.
Harrowing though it was for Mr. Kim and his American comrades, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir depleted China’s 9th Army Group and stalled its future operations for months. Yet, he has tried in vain for decades to get the South Korean government to recognize his participation in the war, let alone his contribution. “Tumbling in the snow, I lost my dog tag,” he lamented. In the absence of his military service number — etched on a dog tag and also scribbled into a piece of paper at the time of conscription — the South Korean Army Personnel Command has been unable to locate his dossier.
I did not know how much time had elapsed since I picked up the receiver. Toward the end of our call, I was already sifting through the Intranet for his record. Indeed, his requests for government recognition had been processed by officers working in the same base as mine — South Korea’s Army Personnel Command and Archive Group nestle in the Army Headquarters near Daejeon, in the heart of the country — and their predecessors, going back more than a decade. I started looking for answers.
It turned out Mr. Kim was not the only one forgotten. According to military archives, approximately 180,000 Koreans qualified for wartime merits, but a quarter of them remain unidentified. Contemporaneous shortfalls and subsequent bureaucratic neglect spawned a problem that we can hardly remedy today.
CHALLENGES OF IDENTIFICATION
Japan’s colonial legacy in the Korean peninsula partly accounts for this lapse. Identification of colonial subjects revolved strictly around their birthplaces and current residences for the purposes of restricting freedom of movement, mobilizing forced labor, and express looting. At the onset of the Korean War, the only information available on the draftees were their names, birthdates, and recent addresses. Unlike immutable resident registration numbers, however, these were subject to changes and errors.
In the throes of war and rushed drafting, it was not uncommon for people to submit their “toddler names” to the military, childhood nicknames that they kept cherishing into adulthood. Their affection for these informal nomenclatures was likely to have grown only stronger during World War II. Having invaded China in the 1930s and French Indochina in 1940, Imperial Japan forced Korean subjects to adopt Japanese names in order to deprive the colonized of their identity and transform them into loyal supporters. Therefore, the “toddler names” that draftees used when entering the military during the Korean War only existed in their households.
When giving birth at home was the norm, parents filed for birth certificates at a later time and jotted down different dates on different occasions, prompting irregularity in numerous official documents. Even the memory of one’s true birthday faded over time. Needless to say, residences changed as usual. Especially during and after the war, massive desolation and demographic displacement meant that residences were poor proof of establishing their identity. Identity was as fluid as the war was frantic.
With less than 1% of the veterans estimated to be alive today, the honor of Mr. Kim and other unaccounted comrades is left to pale.
The Japanese Government-General of Korea compiled subjects’ occupations, tax records, utility bills, telegram correspondences, family relations, friends, and even drinking habits. Yet, these were for surveillance and mostly lost after independence. The extent to which the postcolonial government struggled to pin down people’s identities illustrates a crucial aspect of the state bureaucracy. Modernity embodied by bureaucratic trappings designed to exercise control and government left behind flaws and margins wherein subjects maintained agency and evaded clear-cut top-down definitions of their identity.
Another wartime technical issue has hampered the identification of veterans. Korean military clerks adopted writing Chinese characters for internal records, leaving room for mistaken transcription. Just like the medieval English courts that insisted on the French language and contemporary scholars writing in Latin, Korea had reserved Chinese characters for the elites. Yet, over time, some characters had become simplified or simply erroneous depending on contexts.
Adding to the lexical maelstrom was the Japanese style of writing Chinese letters, which in itself opened up endless possibilities for diversification. “It’s really tough to decipher names and addresses because of bad handwriting, and some information is just outright wrong,” sighed Kim Jae-yong, a Chinese translator who used to work at an opposite desk from mine at the Korean Army Headquarters.
Post-war government attempts at identification were lackluster, too. In 1955, the Korean military combed through its rank and file to confer war merits to those who still stayed enlisted after the war. Although the military expanded the search to discharged soldiers in 1961, such efforts soon withered without the government’s budgetary and legal support. It was only in 2019, almost seven decades since the first hostility, that the Army Headquarters dedicated a task force to tracing and locating the forgotten veterans.
FINDING THE DESERVING
For the past three years, the task force has managed to track down some 18,000 veterans. Albeit anachronistic and therefore abolished in 2005, a unique practice called hojuje has come in handy. By law, only men could constitute a household, and authorities identified the rest of the family members through the patriarch only. Some wartime personnel records include the names of the draftees’ fathers. In light of such paucity and inaccuracy of personnel information, perusing their pedigrees — dozens of pages, written in Chinese characters — is sometimes the only option. If the patriarchal name on the hojeok, the rigmarole of family names, matches that of the veteran’s father as recorded in military papers, he is the right one.
If a veteran has already passed away and nobody in his family claims the award on his behalf, finding and paying personal visits to his relatives illuminate a bigger picture as to the real owner of a poorly recorded identity. But this labor-intensive traveling through the deep countryside can still prove futile: even the slightest changes in jurisdiction among the tiniest of villages frustrate the task force in their search for the patriarchal household documents and the relatives’ whereabouts.
Yet, Mr. Kim is very much alive and actively seeking government recognition. But if every single piece of his information was cack-handedly scrawled into the paper, it is as if his wartime identity and existence forever vanished. No records in the military archive matched his information nor did his account correspond to war stories kept by the Army History Institute. Worse yet, the military cannot rule out the possibility that his document belonged to a host of records that were simply lost during the war.
Ironically, an injury might have given him better odds in the present by leaving behind extra paper trails. Hospitals kept separate patient records and the military doled out injury-on-duty certifications as well. A veteran who passed away recently received a posthumous medal thanks to his son’s repeated exhortation to the military to scour the archive for a surgical record of a very specific bullet wound.
In fact, many requests for service recognition come from elderly widows and middle-aged offspring of deceased veterans. They are not after financial compensation — the government dishes out less than $300 a month only to the veterans still alive. The disbursement can be neither retroactively applied nor transferable to the immediate family upon their demise. What makes them dial the military after all these years is their gratitude for and reminiscence of all those nameless veterans, to whose valor and selflessness South Korea owes its existence.
With less than 1% of the veterans estimated to be alive today, the honor of Mr. Kim and other unaccounted comrades is left to pale. Mr. Kim said he wanted to go up North again to thank a young mother he encountered at a pigsty. Having escaped the rumbling of tanks and shelling, she was trembling in the cold. One of her arms cradled her baby wrapped in layers of bedsheets, while her other arm pointed him to where there were no enemies.
Regarding from afar an annual commemoration parade for veterans, Mr. Kim remembered plopping down with feelings of resignation and loss. Sometimes even the weight of history descends on the doldrums of office work.
Eunwoo Lee is an independent journalist and a policy analyst based in Paris. Previously, he had served at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, on detachment to the Army Headquarters. His articles have also appeared in The National Interest, The Diplomat, The Japan Times, 9DASHLINE, and others.