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Independence fighter recounts family's struggle for one, liberated Korea

By 윤민식

Published : Aug. 16, 2015 - 18:11

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In Oh Hee-ock’s little apartment in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, there hangs a black-and-white photograph of her late mother and sister.

The 89-year-old looks at it every day. It’s a reminder of who she is and where she comes from ― a member of a historic family that was behind Korea’s military activism against the Japanese rule.

Oh’s family has an unparalleled iconic tale to tell when it comes to Korea’s fight for independence during the colonial rule that lasted from 1910-1945. Three generations of the family, including Oh’s mother, sister, and grandfather, devoted themselves into the cause, enduring years of financial hardship, relentless travel across China and sacrifice of personal happiness.

Born in 1926 to Manchuria-based Korean activists and raised in multiple Chinese cities including Nanjing and Chongqing, Oh was separated from her father at age 10 when he was arrested by the Japanese while on a mission in Beijing. For the next 10 years, she and her two siblings were raised by their mother in China, assuming their father was probably dead.

“We knew he spent three years in jail after he disappeared,” she said. “But we didn’t know what happened to him after that.”

Independence activist Oh Hee-ock speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. ( Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald) Independence activist Oh Hee-ock speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. ( Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)


Oh’s mother, Jeong Jeong-san, was a fearless activist often dubbed a “woman warrior.” When they lived in Manchuria, she cultivated the wasteland on her own and started rice farming. Every day, she’d cook 12 bags of rice to feed soldiers of the Korean Liberation Army, in which her father-in-law, Oh In-soo, and husband, Oh Gwang-seon, played leading roles.

Gwang-seon, in particular, was one of the closest aides of Kim Koo (1876-1949), the last Premier of the Provisional Government of Republic of Korea, a partially recognized Korean government-in-exile that was based in Shanghai and later in Chongqing during Japanese rule. Kim was also a leader of the Korean independence movement and became a reunification activist after 1945.

One of the supporters of Kim and the Korean Liberation Army was Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the Chinese political and military leader who later became the first president of Taiwan. Oh and her sister were allowed to attend a school founded by Chiang in China when their mother could not afford to send them to school as a single parent.

Jeong also encouraged her teenage daughters to become soldiers and fight against the Japanese. Oh was only 14 when she joined the army in Chongqing. “It just felt very natural for me and my sister,” Oh recalled. “We didn’t think not joining the army was an option.”

While her sister, Hee-young, worked as an intelligence agent and was responsible of recruiting soldiers and plotting guerilla warfare along with Chinese activists, Oh spent most of her time organizing political campaigns against the Japanese authorities, engaging in a number of propaganda plays and musical performances. What gripped Oh and her colleagues in China was a heavy sense of loss. “We were on this mission together and the mission was about retrieving what was forcefully taken away from us ― our country,” she said.

Oh and her family moved to Korea in 1946, a year after the country was liberated from Japan. They were soon reunited with their father in Incheon. He had been rescued by a Chinese family after being left in a remote wilderness by the Japanese, and worked in Manchuria on secret military missions.

Yet the family faced more hardships in their home country, even after the Korean War (1950-1953).

Oh is still particularly grief-stricken by her late sister’s life and how it ended. “My sister was such a gifted, eloquent and intelligent person. She spoke Chinese and English on top of Korean. She had so much to offer,” Oh said. “Our teachers always said she would make a great lawyer.”

Unlike Oh, who managed to get a job as a teacher after moving to Korea, her sister didn’t get the same opportunity. Before moving to Korea, Hee-young married a fellow Korean activist, Shin Song-sik, in China in 1944, and had her first son shortly after.

The son died as a child during the Korean War. She had six children after that. “She was too busy being a mother (to do anything else),” Oh said.

Throughout her life, Hee-young suffered severe financial hardships, after Shin chose not to join the Korea Army Forces because his belief ― which had been based on activism for unification ― conflicted with South Korea’s anti-North Korean military agenda. He tried to start a business once, but it ended in bankruptcy after he was swindled out of his savings.

Hee-young died in 1969 of cervical cancer. She was only 42. Shin died of lung cancer four years later. Their orphaned children were forced to part ways to support themselves, and only two of them managed to attend high school.

It was in 1990 that Hee-young was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation for her work as an independence activist, along with other family members including Oh, her husband Shin, and her parents.

“It really breaks my heart whenever I think about her,” Oh said.

Oh’s father, on the other hand, was never promoted beyond colonel in the South Korean Army, in spite of his contributions during the colonial period. Being left out of the much-deserved promotion for 8 years also led to financial struggles for his family. He died in 1967 at age 71.

“I heard that only the president can promote a colonel to a (general),” she said. “My father was a close aide of Kim Koo, who was the strongest political rival of Syngman Rhee, the first President of South Korea.”

Oh said she still had conflicted feelings about her late father. He was a remarkable solider and a caring father, she recalled. He was ahead of his time and determined to educate his daughters. But he also caused Oh’s mother suffering by leaving her for 10 years ― albeit involuntarily ― and living with another woman and having children with her during that period.

“Perhaps it’s better for an activist with a big purpose to not marry at all,” she said. “I don’t think you can do both; serve your country and supporting your family at the same time.”

Her mother, who spent most of her later life alone until her death in 1992, also suffered from financial hardships. “I could not visit her very often because I had to take care of my own grandchildren,” she said.

“Once she visited me at my house, and asked if I had any money to support her. She had to rely on a stick to walk at the time but still came all the way to see me. That day I had no money to give her and she had to leave the house empty handed. I still think about that day and I still wish I could have helped her. I think about it over and over again.”

After all these years, Oh, who is the sole survivor of her family, wishes to see the reunification of the two Koreas. Just like Kim Koo, her father had fiercely opposed the establishment of separate governments in North and South Korea after Korean liberation. The division was a loss of the country that Oh and her family had so desperately envisioned.

“My family’s efforts were for a liberated Korea, not a divided one,” she said.

Oh still clearly remembers the lyrics of a song which she often sang with her sister and fellow soldiers in China as a young activist. The song was written by composer Lee Si-woo in 1935, inspired by a real-life story of a woman whose husband was killed by the Japanese after crossing the Tumen River to campaign in China for Korean independence.

“There is a boatman rowing on the blue Tumen River,” the song goes.

“My love once took a boat and years flew by. Where was my love heading? My love, when are you returning to me?”


By Claire Lee
(dyc@heraldcorp.com)