Korean back home after escape ends 50 years as PoW

A SOLDIER captured during the Korean War 50 years ago was reunited with his family yesterday after escaping from North Korea.

Jun Yong-il had been assumed dead before his dramatic escape when he and an unnamed woman swam across the river border into China.

The couple were arrested in June attempting to board a plane to South Korea using false passports.

After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, China allowed the couple to fly to South Korea on Christmas Eve. Yesterday Mr Jun, 72, met his brother and two sisters for the first time in half a century.

"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," Mr Jun said on seeing his younger sister, Boon-yi, 57.

"I am sorry that I was away so long and did not do my duty as brother."

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

Not immediately recognising 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."

His brother, Soo-il, 65, knelt on the floor and made a deep bow to his older brother.

South Korea’s president, Roh Moo-hyun, hailed Mr Jun’s return home as "a precious Christmas present".

Mr Jun is the latest of more than 30 South Korean PoWs who have managed to escape the North since 1994, as the communist state relaxed control over the movements of its hunger-stricken populace. The ageing PoW’s return galvanises South Korea’s resolve to pursue the fate of at least 300 others still believed to be held in the North.

Details of Mr 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 grey-haired man proudly said he had never forgotten he was a South Korean solider.

Yesterday, wearing a black felt hat and striped silk tie, Mr Jun strode into a defence ministry office where officials arranged a brief reunion with his two sisters, brother and a nephew.

Mr 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.

Mr Jun, 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 188,000 in unpaid salary and other compensation.

While China has a treaty with Pyongyang obliging it to send home fleeing North Koreans, it routinely lets them leave if their cases become publicly known.

Soo-il said he was proud of his elder brother and hoped the defence ministry would release him soon.

"He must have gone through a lot all these years. We want to take him home and give him a thorough medical checkup," he said.

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