PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — He was only 17 when Chinese troops backing North Korea overran a hill being defended by his South Korean Army squad and took him prisoner in the early hours of Dec. 28, 1951.
He spent the next 40 years toiling in North Korean coal mines as a prisoner of the war between the Koreas. “We P.O.W.s lived inside a fenced-off camp guarded by armed sentries at four corners and were escorted to work by officers carrying pistols,” he said.
“We were nothing but slaves.”
Decades later, the former P.O.W., now 86, scored a landmark legal victory when the Seoul Central District Court ordered North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, to pay him the equivalent of $17,600 in damages for holding him against his will and forcing him to work in the mines. The verdict marked the first time that a court in the South recognized P.O.W.s who were illegally held in the North — an acknowledgment of their suffering there.
In its ruling, the court blocked part of the man’s name from the public, and fearing that North Korea might retaliate against his children still in that country, the former P.O.W. spoke only on the condition that he be identified by his last name, Han, and that his face be partly obscured.
There is little chance that North Korea or Mr. Kim will pay what’s owed to Mr. Han. And it could take years for his lawyers to find and confiscate any North Korean assets.
Still, for Mr. Han, the verdict was justice served, and justice long overdue.
“I could not understand the judge’s words in the courtroom,” Mr. Han said, referring to the unfamiliar legal terms. “But when my lawyer held my hand and explained that we had won, tears came to my eyes,” he recalled in an interview at his two-room apartment in Pyeongtaek, a city south of Seoul, where he lives with his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease.
The families of two victims of North Korean torture — the American college student Otto Warmbier and a South Korean minister, the Rev. Kim Dong-shik — previously won court judgments against the North in the United States. But Mr. Han’s case showed that a similar lawsuit could be successfully waged in South Korea, where efforts to bring P.O.W.s home or to hold the North accountable for holding them against their will have long been considered a lost cause, given the political tensions between the two Koreas.
Mr. Han was one of six children from a farming family in Jeongeup, South Korea, when he was taken prisoner. He and two friends from his village had volunteered for the South Korean Army in the spring of 1951, less than a year after North Korea invaded the South — setting off a war that has not officially ended.
He would spend the next half-century in the North, most of that time doing backbreaking work in its coal mines.
Over the years, North Korea officials allowed the P.O.W.s to form some semblance of a life, giving the miners citizenship in 1956 and allowing them to marry. Mr. Han wed a North Korean woman that year, and together they had five children.
But the former P.O.W.s from the South and their children were assigned to the bottom of the North’s songbun, or class system, and often given the most dangerous jobs in the mines. Six days a week, Mr. Han said, he rode up to half a mile underground into the dark tunnels, where he toiled 12 hours a day in sweltering heat, with methane gas a constant hazard. Prisoners who tried to escape were hunted down and never heard from again.
“When there was a methane gas explosion, we could hardly recognize the bodies because they were literally cooked in flames,” Mr. Han said, recalling the names of P.O.W. friends he had lost. “We smelled like nothing else, working soaking wet with sweat but having no time to wash our clothes.”
When an armistice was signed in 1953 to halt the fighting, 82,000 South Korean soldiers remained missing or were believed to have been taken prisoner. In 2014, the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry estimated that at least 50,000 South Korean P.O.W.s were not repatriated. North Korea returned only 8,300, keeping many more for forced labor in postwar coal mines. Men were in such short supply that women, including Mr. Han’s North Korean mother-in-law, also worked in the mines.
“We thought that relations between South and North Korea would improve,” Yoo Young-bok, a former P.O.W. who escaped the North in 2000, told the U.N. commission. “But five decades have passed and nobody came looking for us and tried to save us.”
North Korea has denied holding any South Koreans against their will. The missing soldiers were eventually counted among the war dead and largely forgotten in the South. Mr. Han’s mother died in 1961 believing that her son had been killed in battle. (His father died before the war.)
Then, in 1994, an emaciated refugee from North Korea named Cho Chang-ho was found adrift on a ramshackle wooden boat off South Korea. He turned out to be a South Korean lieutenant who had survived prison camps and coal mines in the North. In the South, he was found to have black lung disease.
More aging P.O.W.s fled to the South in the following years, as a famine forced the North to ease control on its people. They all testified in government debriefings, memoirs, news conferences and interviews to forced labor, starvation and deaths in North Korean mines and identified hundreds of fellow war prisoners still alive in the North. Shocked that their long-lost sons and siblings were still alive, South Korean families wanted to help them flee the North. Soon, a cottage industry developed for human traffickers to smuggle refugees out.
So far, 80 P.O.W.s have made it to South Korea, some later testifying in court in support of Mr. Han’s case — the seeds of which were planted by South Korean activists, who suggested the lawsuit in 2016.
Mr. Han, who retired from the Hamyon coal mines at age 60, was living in Kyongwon, in northeast North Korea, when a man showed up in August 2001, asking whether he wanted to meet his South Korean relatives. Mr. Han said he followed the man across the river border to China, his youngest son tagging along.
Around that time, Han Jae-eun, Mr. Han’s youngest brother in South Korea, got a call from a human trafficker.
“I first could not tell whether the man was telling the truth or it was a scam,” said his brother, a taxi driver in Incheon, west of Seoul. “The brother we all thought was dead more than a half century ago turned up alive.”
The brothers had a tearful reunion in Hunchun, China, across the border from Kyongwon. The younger brother gave Mr. Han what money he had brought with him, $8,000, and asked him to decide whether to travel on to South Korea or return to the North with the money.
Mr. Han said he thought: “How could I live comfortably in the South while my children and grandchildren in the North did not even have enough corn to eat? With the money, I could buy tons of corn in the North, but I would never see my brothers again.”
He used the money in November 2001 to smuggle himself, his youngest son, the son’s wife and their two children to the South. There, Mr. Han’s old 7th Army Division promoted him to sergeant and formally discharged him. He received his unpaid salary, military pension and other subsidies that South Korea provides for returning P.O.W.s. He then smuggled his wife, another son and a daughter out of the North.
But his family is still divided. Two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren live in the South, and a son, a daughter and four grandchildren in the North. The two Koreas do not allow their citizens to meet or communicate with one another, except during occasional official family reunions.
After the court ruling last month, Yoh Sang-key, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said the government would “cooperate with North Korea and the international community to make concrete progress in resolving the problem of P.O.W.s.”
Mr. Han’s life story epitomized that of thousands of South Korean P.O.W.s who were abused by North Korea for decades but ignored in their home country.
The thought haunts him still.
“Think of all those 50,000 men in the North,” Mr. Han said. “That was a few army divisions worth of soldiers trapped in the enemy territory, still in active service because they have never been discharged. And what have you done for them?”