Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi Biography: Refugee, Part 2

The Healing Art Kimoodo

The following is an excerpt from the work-in-progress autobiography of Sr. Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi. This section 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..

We had a radio at the time. It was illegal to listen to. The Communists did not want us to hear. But we listened anyway in the basement of the house. The Americans broadcast the times of bombings. That way we knew when to be in the bomb shelters or in the basement.

There were refugees then too, traveling south away from the bombing and away from the Chinese. Many people had lost their homes. They had nowhere to go, but south. This was in December and January, so it was very cold too.

We heard on the radio that the Americans had refugee boats at the harbor. The last boat was there, waiting to take refugees south. My mother decided that we would take that boat. It was no longer safe in the north. We packed what we could. My mother, my grandmother, and my three siblings all had backpacks. Mom packed some rice, a little food, and some money. It was North Korean money however, and we had no idea if we could use it in the South or not. My grandmother even carried something on her head. My youngest brother, Young Pyo Choi, was only three or so, and he was so fat he could barely walk straight. My older brother carried him in his backpack.

We were about twenty miles from Hŭngnam Harbor, where the boats were. The roads were filled with thousands of refugees, all of whom had heard the radio transmission. Bombs were falling from the sky, and it was frigid cold, and we were running with all our possessions on our backs. When the planes came, we jumped into the ditch. Behind us the bombs fell on the fertilizer factory.

We were lucky to reach the harbor, but many of us had heard the radio broadcast. More refugees wanted to board the ships than there was room for. They were U.S. Navy ships, LSTs, Landing Ship, Tanks, used for landing soldiers, tanks, and materials on rocky beaches. Only in this case, they were taking refugees off the beaches.

Again we were lucky and were allowed on the last boat. This is a famous scene in Korean history: thousands of refugees rushing to board the boats. Many dying. Many separated from their families. Many left behind. Crying babies everywhere. Children separated from their families. And one thing I saw, that is with me still, is of a woman running from the bombs, the baby on her back already dead.

The scene – of the last boat in Hŭngnam harbor – has been captured in Korean movies, books, and TV. That last boat that you see in these movies, we were on it. We were lucky to leave North Korea for good.

From Hŭngnam we sailed south to a small island called Geoje Island. There were so many refugees that a single camp would not hold them all. There were several different camps all over the island, but none of them would accommodate a family with four children. Still, it was winter and cold, though we were in southern Korea. My mother found for us a single room at the Catholic Church. It was cold too, but at least there was food to eat.

It was good that my mother found a room for us, but it was bad for my father and uncle. My father, after escaping from the north, was in Pusan which was a huge naval base where my uncle was stationed. He was working as an engineer attached to the base, but at the same time, he and my uncle were searching for us. They guessed we had left Hŭngnam by boat, but did not know which boat. They were searching where each of the boats had gone from Hŭngnam harbor, trying to find us, but it was not easy. There were many boats and many refugee camps.

Finally, they guessed we were on Geoje Island, based on when they thought we left Hŭngnam. They came there and searched the camps, asking for us. But of course, we weren’t in the camps; we were at the church. Somehow – I don’t know how – he and my grandfather found us. Together again, the family moved to Pusan Harbor, and it was there that I lived as a refugee for a long time.

In Pusan, which is a commercial harbor, we built a house in the corner of a warehouse. The ground was damp, so we raised the house above it with the trunks of four pine trees. On those trunks we placed pine boards and that was our sleeping area, an area smaller than my current office. Six people lived there, six refugees from North Korea.

Father worked at the military base where my aunt’s husband the admiral was stationed. My mom made a rice cake buns which she sold at the market. She was an excellent cook, and everyday she went to the market with a bucket of these buns. The children, the four of us, were left to our devices in the city.

We refugees were foreigners in the city, at least that is how the locals felt. We had invaded their land, were living where we didn’t belong. But we had to get by. We needed food to live, a place to live. So there was constant fighting between the locals and the refugees. This was my first exposure to fighting.

To survive, the refugees had to team up. The children, we ran in the streets as gangs, the teens, the older children, and the mini-peewees. That was me, I was a mini-peewee. And always we were fighting to survive, fighting to control the streets, fighting all the time. It was a chore. Fighting was work to be done each day, to maintain control of our territory.

I was small, so I worked for the gang in the ways a small person can. The oldest would give me a knife blade, then sneak me into the shipyard – through a small hole in the fence. I’d take the knife and cut holes in the cargo sacks stacked on the pier.

Sometimes I would cut the sacks and rice would fall out. Sometimes it was squid or some other food. Once it was pots and pans, which was good since we could cook the rice and squid in the pots! So, yes, I stole to survive and gave what I stole to the elders in the gang. If I did well, I got a pat on the back. If not, I got yelled at. Life was like that. We did what we had to to survive.

Every night we come together, the locals and the refugees, to fight in the streets. I did too. We had kids of every size fighting in the championships, and I was a mini-peewee, so I fought other mini-peewees. It was not taekwondo; I didn’t know any martial arts at the time. It was street fighting. But techniques came naturally to me, especially the jump front kick. No other kid could do the jump front kick. Perhaps it was because I played so much soccer. This kicking was a part of North Korean fighting skills that we all knew. But I could do it better than any other mini-peewee and won lots of matches. Winning was very good.


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