Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

S Korean soldier enjoys tearful reunion with family

HAPPY FIfty years after being made a prisoner by the North Koreans, Jun Yong-il met up with his little sister, who was a toddler when he went off to fight in the Korean War

AP , SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

Former South Korean prisoner of the Korean War Jun Yong-il, right, hugs his younger sister for the first time in 53 years in Seoul yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Jun Yong-il, a South Korean soldier who returned home this week after being held in North Korea for 50 years, still had a big brother's swagger when finally reunited with his sister yesterday.

"My little sister, come here! I will hug you and carry you on my back as I used to. I am not as weak as I look," 72-year-old Jun said as his sister, Boon-yi, buried her tearful face in his chest.

The sister -- a toddler when Jun last saw her before joining the South Korean military during the 1950-53 Korean War -- is now a graying 57-year-old woman.

"I am sorry that I was away so long and did not do my duty as brother," Jun said, holding her face with his weathered hands.

Jun reportedly fled North Korea in June by swimming across the river-border with China. He and an unidentified female companion were arrested in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou in November while trying to board a flight to South Korea with forged passports. Until his arrest in China, the South Korean government had counted him off as killed in action for half a century.

After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, China allowed the couple to fly to South Korea on Christmas Eve. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun hailed it "a precious Christmas present."

Jun is the latest of more than 30 South Korean prisoners of war who have managed to escape the North since 1994, as the communist country relaxed control over the movements of its hunger-stricken populace.

The aging POW's return galvanizes South Korea's resolve to pursue the fate of at least 300 others still believed to be held in the North.

Details of Jun's life in North Korea were not yet known. He is going through a two-month debriefing by South Korean authorities. Upon landing in South Korea on Wednesday, the gray-haired man proudly said he had never forgotten he was a South Korean soldier.

Yesterday, wearing a black felt hat and striped silk tie, Jun strode into a Defense Ministry room where officials arranged a brief reunion with his two sisters, brother and a nephew.

"Until she died, mother so often talked about you," said his 78-year-old sister Yong-mok.

Not immediately recognizing the sister after 50 years, Jun asked, "Who are you?"

He later said, "Sister, I am sorry. But you should know that God helped me remain healthy enough to live this long so that I could see you again."

The 65-year-old brother, Soo-il, kneeled down on the floor and made a deep bow to his brother.

Jun joined the South Korean army in 1951 and was captured by Chinese troops who fought alongside North Korean forces in the Korean War.

Fighting stopped in 1953 but the North and South are still technically at war after the conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Efforts to bring the forgotten soldiers home have made little progress, as Pyongyang denies holding any POWs.

Jun, who was a private first class when captured, is expected to be promoted to staff sergeant before being formally discharged from the military. He could get up to US$334,000 in unpaid salary and other compensation.

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