South Korean POW finally discharged from army

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

CHIRWON, South Korea -- A South Korean prisoner of war who returned home last month after being held 50 years in North Korea was formally discharged from the army Monday as a military brass band played on a snowy parade ground outside Seoul. "I am overwhelmed by emotion," said 72-year-old Jun Yong-il, dressed in a crisp new uniform, as 350 current members of his unit, the Blue Star 6th Army Division, stood at attention and presented arms. Jun is the latest of more than 30 South Korean POWs who have escaped the North since 1994, as the communist country relaxed control over the movements of its hunger-stricken populace.

Jun's return has helped galvanize the South's resolve to pursue the fate of at least 300 others still believed held.

Chinese forces, who fought alongside the North Koreans, captured Jun in July 1953 -- days before a truce ended the three-year war.

Jun was first held in a POW camp but later worked in a mine and then several factories.

Last June, he reportedly swam across the North's river border into China, where he was arrested. After lengthy negotiations, China allowed him to fly to South Korea on Dec. 24.

Jun, a private first class when captured, was promoted to staff sergeant before his discharge and reviewed troops at his farewell ceremony.

Among those present were 12 veterans from his unit, including his former platoon leader.

"I thought all my platoon members were dead except me," Lt. Lee Bo-young said. "I can hardly imagine what hardship you must have gone through in North Korea."

Jun declined to talk about his time in North Korea, saying only: "I'm glad to be home, to return to my country, my hometown and my old unit."

After his discharge, he went to his hometown of Youngchon, where his 80-year-old sister, Jun Yong-mok, said she planned to "feed him well."

"This is a miracle he could come back home alive after all that hardship in North Korea," she said.

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