A Korean survivor and North Korean nuclear tests

Lee Sil Gun, a Hiroshima survivor of Korean ethnic background

Lee Sil Gun in a 2011 YouTube video in New York.

Time can make such a difference in one’s perspective. North Korea had launched a nuclear test, its second, shortly before a 2009 interview I had with Lee Sil Gun, one of the ethnic Korean survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. It was a tense time, with the strange nation showing it had the ability to attack its neighbors with nuclear weapons. And I remember being a bit nervous myself about the interview, having heard that Lee was somewhat sympathetic to North Korea.

He told a moving story about his own youth, when he was deeply patriotic toward Japan and remained so even as he found that he was going to have to enter a less-prestigious military academy than he had hoped because of discrimination against Japan’s Korean residents. “I was born in Japan,” he said one day 64 years after the war ended. “I was raised in Japan. And I was educated in Japan.”

He added, “I was a military boy of the imperial Japanese Emperor. That is the education that I received. Since I was raised in that kind of educational circumstance, I wanted to become a military man as I got older. So, I wanted to contribute to this country and I wanted to devote myself to the emperor of Japan.”

As he approached his 16th birthday a few months for the bombing, he received word that he could enter a junior airman program in Chiba near Tokyo but not until October. He was living in Yamaguchi Province, near Hiroshima, and times were hard for Korean families there. But it was a largely rural area, so they had access to rice, and Lee joined six adults and a couple of other young people on a train trip taking rice to sell in Kobe, where some of the adults had lived before evacuating to the countryside amid the U.S. fire bombings of cities. On the way back, he wound up being exposed to considerable amounts of radiation as the train, reaching tracks destroyed by the bombing the morning before, let off passengers to walk through the entire city before eventually finding a way back home from the other side of Hiroshima.

He and the group from the rural Asa district of Yamaguchi walked at length and Lee began to think they were surely in Hiroshima. But he couldn’t see anything of the city. They were following along the twisted tracks of the railway, so they finally reached Hiroshima Station, damaged but still standing in the rubble of damage from explosion and fire.

“Thinking about those things, I arrived at Hiroshima Station. It was all a desert.” Hiroshima was the largest city in the entire region, but there was nothing. For the first time, it occurred to him that Japan could be defeated.

“I saw the desert of Hiroshima and I was greatly shocked. My legs shivered and I could not stand … That was the first time that I thought that Japan would be defeated.”

He, like other survivors, experienced a lifetime of horror in a single day. Lee had missed the bombing itself but saw the utter devastation and the reality of death all around him. He came down with radiation sickness himself when he got home. And he would learn from other Korean survivors of the cruelties they faced on the day of the bombing from the Japanese whom Lee longed to serve.

Lee talked about one man who had suffered such bad burns that he had to crawl, making his way to a first aid tent. There, a military doctor saw him begging with outstretched hands for help. The doctor, using derogatory terms for Koreans, demanded to know whether the injured person was Korean. The man acknowledged that he was and continued to beg for help. The doctor, who was carrying a sword, shouted, “Who do you think you are? You are not Japanese. … Get out of here!” Even believing that he needed treatment to survive, the man thought he might be killed on the spot if he stayed. He managed to crawl two more miles to his home. But years later, as death approached, he used to tell people that even if the doctor came before him, he could not forgive him.

There was no sense of bitterness about Lee. He was as resolute in his opposition to nuclear arms as any of the other survivors, the hibakusha. He spoke clearly of the need to abolish all nuclear weapons. And he was critical – as are many Japanese and others – of the Japanese government’s handling of relations with Korea, pointing to its colonial subjugation of Korea as leading to the divided peninsula of today.

He was certainly critical of the United States and its role in Asian security questions, as well as being sharply critical of the Japanese government’s reliance on the United States’ nuclear forces – the so-called nuclear umbrella – as an ultimate protection against any threats from its neighbors. Including North Korea, of course. And he expressed hope that the United States would find a way to lead North Korea into negotiations that would – finally – bring a peace treaty to end the Korean War that still has only an armistice holding the two sides apart.

It was all quite reasonable. But I felt a need to ask him if North Korea had made any mistakes in its pursuing the development of nuclear arms. He talked around it, pointing again to the sense of threat North Korea feels. He said, “But there is a reason why North Korea developed the nuclear weapons. That reason has to be removed.”

With the nuclear test still fresh, it didn’t seem like enough. But when I went back through all my notes from the lengthy interview, the power of Lee’s story, his quiet presentation, and his firmness about nuclear abolition all came back to me. And his criticism of U.S. policy seemed relevant and fair-minded, whether I agreed or not with all of it. “The United States wants to create a North Korea just like South Korea or Japan, an obedient country.” I also found that last year, when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon for the third time, he said he understood the reasons but he told a reporter for Hiroshima’s daily paper, the Chugoku Shimbun, that he was saddened and no tests should be conducted. That was probably what he was thinking when I interviewed him but didn’t catch as well.

Reading over the interview notes, I was struck by the decency of the young man who had wanted to devote himself to his country, the reasonableness of his views about nuclear issues. I recalled the sense of kindness about him. And I noticed that as we ended our interview, I had asked if there was anything else we should talk about. He expressed hope of meeting again and talked about the possibility of accompanying a local delegation to a U.N. meeting on non-proliferation — in New York. He made it there in 2011, among other things speaking about the peace mission for a YouTube video.

Research for this and other articles here was done with a Fulbright grant. Joe Copeland can be reached at copeland.joe@gmail.com.

Copyright 2014, Joe Copeland

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