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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Antony Beevor on Yang Kyoungjong

by | October 19th, 2013 | 07:15 am
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Antony Beevor released a history of The Second World War last year that emphasizes the extraordinary human disruption of the conflict; the travails of those who lived as well as the losses of those who died. He also seeks to link the Asian and European conflicts more tightly. The book begins with the tale of Yang Kyoungjong, which has an indefinable appeal to anyone who thinks about the history of the Korean peninsula:

“In June 1944, a young soldier surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was Japanese, but he was in fact Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong. In 1938, at the age of eighteen, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Kwantung Army in Manchuria. A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labour camp. The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him along with thousands of other prisoners into their forces. Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner by the German army at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine. In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with an Ostbataillon supposedly boosting the strength of the Atlantic Wall at the base of the Cotentin Peninsular inland from Utah Beach. After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States where he said nothing of his past. He settled there and finally died in Illinois in 1982 [SH Comment: Other accounts we could find suggest he died in 1992].”

The story was broken in 2002 and became a sensation in South Korea, inspiring Kang Je-gyu’s 2011 film “My Way.” Beevor tells the tale at greater length in a long essay in the Daily Mail.

So why the appeal? Is it the appalling luck of this individual, or his ability to survive it all? Above all, the story shows the incredible disruption of great power ambitions: the Japanese conscriptions in its colonies; the Japanese clashes with the Soviets in the late 30s where their empires intersected on the Asian mainland; the herculean Russian efforts against the Germans; and the subsequent German use of captured Russian soldiers in their effort to hold the European continent.

Thanks to Michael Munk for bringing this to our attention.