SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Six decades after they returned to their home countries, traces of thousands of North Korean children rejected by the Korean War for the older Europeans whose lives they touched briefly remain.
The smell of the trees they planted. The memories of their innocent faces. The Korean song they sang.
About 5,000 orphans were sent to live in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany – all communist allies – as part of Soviet-led projects to reconstruct war-torn North Korea.
The orphans studied in local schools and made local friends. They were then abruptly recalled to North Korea.
“We were not told – at all – that they just stopped coming to school,” said Halina Dobek, 87, who taught some of the orphans in Poland. “These children left Poland without enthusiasm.”
It’s a largely forgotten piece of Cold War history, but a new documentary highlights the lives of the orphans whose departure still weighs heavily on the Europeans they knew.
Referring to the founder and leader of the war in North Korea, the movie “Kim Il Sung’s Children” will be released on June 25, the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. The three-year conflict destroyed much of North and South Korea, killing more than 1 million people, and orphaned an estimated 100,000 children.
Like the war itself, rebuilding both countries – including what to do with the orphans – became part of the Cold War rivalry. At the same time, the North Koreans were sent for education in Eastern Europe, thousands of South Korean orphans were adopted by families in North America and Western Europe.
At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing, such as who could send people into space first. In this vein, they also competed for ways to show whose political system was more human and superior, “said Kim Deog-Young, the film’s director.
When the North Koreans arrived in Europe, the countries were still reeling from the destruction of World War II. However, they were treated well.
The film features Bulgarians giving flowers to North Korean children on arrival in 1952, wearing identical dark hats and coats.
Katya Panalotova, who lives in the Bulgarian city of Parvomay, remembers in the film that her new classmates were fed five times a day and wore leather shoes while local students wore rubber shoes.
Bonds were formed quickly.
“We played soccer and volleyball on a hill together. We were like brothers, ”said Veselin Kolev, another Bulgarian, in the movie.
But there were also dark moments. Some orphans were haunted by memories of wartime bombing and hidden under tables when they heard the sound of airplanes.
North Korea sent its own citizens to Europe to teach the children the Korean language, history and culture, while European teachers covered other topics. Dobek taught the orphans Polish in Otwock, a city near Warsaw, from 1956-57.
She told AP that the children “needed the warmth of our heart.”
“The youth wanted us to stroke their heads and hug them,” she recalled.
Most North Koreans lived in dormitories, but a few stayed with local families.
The film features footage from the Romanian National Archives showing the orphans saluting a North Korean flag depicting Kim Il Sung marching at their new school with military precision.
The orphans sang “The Song of General Kim Il Sung” so often that some classmates still remember a few words. In the film, some older Bulgarians sing in Korean together about “our General Kim Il Sung whose name is glorious.”
In Otwock’s primary school number 5, where the orphans studied, there are still faded photos of the North Koreans, as well as reports showing that they achieved excellent grades in painting, crafts and behavior. In the city, the pine trees that the North Koreans have planted have grown and the remains of an obelisk that they set up to commemorate the nations’ friendship can still be found.
Kim visited some of the orphans, including the one at Dobek’s school, on a trip to Eastern Europe in 1956.
It was a year later, on the orders of Kim, that the North Koreans returned home. They were all gone by 1959.
The film features 1959 footage of young North Koreans reaching through train windows for parting handshakes with Bulgarian friends.
A tearful Maria Yamalieva from Bulgaria says that she and her North Korean friend Kim Jin Wu cried together as they hugged each other before saying goodbye.
There was never any public explanation as to why the orphans were sent home, but both the film and the experts speculate that Kim might have been concerned that the young North Koreans had been influenced too much by a foreign culture at a time when some anti -Soviet protests were in Eastern Europe and calls for political reform.
Once at home, some orphans sent letters to teachers and classmates.
Barbara Michalowska, whose mother taught in Otwock, told AP that a student sent her mother a painting he made of a Korean landscape. She said others wrote letters saying they wanted to return to Poland.
After a few years, the letters just stopped, said Kim Deog-Young, the director.
What happened to most orphans is not known, but there are indications about some.
Seo Jae-pyoung, who fled North Korea in 2000, told AP that his Russian language teacher had been sent to Romania as an orphan in the 1980s and reminisced about feasting on bread, milk and cheese while there.
Haesung Lee, head of Korean studies at the Polish University of Wroclaw, said three former North Korean diplomats who had been sent to Poland and a fourth who taught Polish at a Pyongyang university were orphans who had been sent to Poland.
Their now-elderly European friends wish the North Koreans the best, no matter what happens to them.
“I wish my friends could live as innocently as they did when we were kids,” said Lilka Anatasova, a 77-year-old Bulgarian, in the film, naming a few North Koreans. “I will never forget you.”
Scislowska reported from Otwock, Poland.
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