My father’s side of the story is like a Hollywood movie script.
In the early part of the 20th century, Presbyterian missionaries found a receptive audience in northern Korea. But in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, Korea was divided in two and the Communists took control of North Korea, and started to persecute Christians.
This was bad news for my dad’s parents, because they were leaders in the Christian movement. So when the Communists took over, they threw my grandfather in jail because of his faith. Though my grandmother was able to bribe the guards with nicely tailored clothes to garner his release, the experience shook him up. So they decided to make a break for it and flee to the south. Since they were being closely watched, they acted like they were merely going for a picnic with their son — my dad — but then headed for the west coast to climb into small boats ready to smuggle them into South Korea. They became refugees, leaving everything behind.
In the next few years, my grandfather, always the entrepreneur, built up an in-home textile factory with forty sewing machines in the basement. Through innovation and perseverance, they were able to recreate some of the fortune they had lost. At the same time, my great-grandmother would go back into North Korea to visit her daughter who still lived there, but would also go to the family’s old home to bring back valuables. But after six months, the border guards forced her to choose sides — either the north or the south — because she wouldn’t be able to cross again. She went back home to Seoul with a sinking feeling in her heart.
After that time, my grandfather kept his ear close to the ameliorating government radio broadcasts, assuring those in Seoul of their safety. But one night, the broadcasts suddenly stopped, and he knew it was time to leave immediately. So again they were on the run and escaped to the mountains with nothing else but a blanket for the journey. And in the darkness, my dad can remember seeing the orange explosions that destroyed the bridges over the Han River: the South Korean government, in trying to contain the North Korean advance, effectively cut off the escape route for anyone from Seoul. They were trapped.
(To be continued…)