By YOUNG-BOK YOO
TRANSLATED By PAUL T. KIM
PUBLISHER: KOREAN WAR POW AFFAIRS USA, 2012
186 PAGES, ISBN 978-1479383856, PAPERBACK
Reviewed by Mary Connor
Tears of Blood: A Korean POW’s Fight for Freedom, Family, and Justice by Young-Bok Yoo is a riveting, highly readable, and concise account of a survivor of the Korean War who suffered harsh imprisonment and forty-seven years of extreme hardship in North Korea until he escaped to freedom in South Korea at age seventy. Young-Bok Yoo’s narrative brings to life not only the chaos and suffering experienced by Koreans during the Korean War but also informs the reader about an aspect of the war that is virtually unknown outside of Korea: 60,000 prisoners of the war were held captive against their will by the North Korean government and were never repatriated. His autobiography also vividly describes the difficulties of life in North Korea and includes key historical developments over a period of fifty years, along with useful explanatory notes.
When North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950, young-Bok yoo was forced to join the North Korean army. After UN forces landed in Incheon, he was captured by the South Korean army and imprisoned for two years with 170,000 other soldiers at Koje Island on the southern coast. Upon release, he was conscripted into the South Korean army and sent to the frontlines. yoo managed to survive, but just before the armistice, he was captured by the Chinese communists and sent to a prisoner of war camp outside of P’yŏngyang.
While the book portrays a tragic story, it is nevertheless an inspiring one because Yoo never gave up hope for a better life for himself and his loved ones.
In addition to providing an account of his imprisonment and other difficulties during the war, yoo presents a vivid account of the intolerable conditions he and others experienced in North Korea. From the time he was twenty-three years old until he was seventy, he wrote that his “. . . entire life revolved around hunger and oppression. I was always put down and never able to speak my mind freely.” He was, as were other South Korean prisoners, exploited as a laborer in the mines, subjected to harsh conditions, weakened by tuberculosis and famine, and nearly broken by the suffering of members of his family.
Yoo’s account also provides a window into the tragedy of separated families during and after the war. When the Korean War broke out, Yoo’s mother took four younger siblings north of Seoul to escape the fighting, while his father stayed in Seoul. His mother expected to be able to come home after the war, but with the division of the peninsula, Yoo’s parents were never able to see each other again. After being separated from his father for almost half a century, Yoo was finally reunited with his ninety-year-old father, who had lived for nearly fifty years believing his son was dead. Sadly, his father was not able to comprehend that Young-Bok Yoo was his long-lost son.
While the book portrays a tragic story, it is nevertheless an inspiring one because Yoo never gave up hope for a better life for himself and his loved ones. Tears of Blood is particularly valuable not only because it portrays the impact of war on a nation and its people, but it also provides the reader with a realization that the issues of the Korean War have not been resolved and that the pain of the war persists in the minds and hearts of Korean families—both on the Korean peninsula and throughout the world.
Yoo’s moving account is beautifully translated by Paul Kim, a young Korean-American whose grandmother insisted that he grow up fluent in the Korean language. Inspired by Yoo’s story, Kim subsequently translated the book when he was only a junior in high school. Tears of Blood is particularly recommended for high school and undergraduate students.