The foreman in the early days was a Japanese detective from Samcheok Police Station. However, when we complained about his conduct, he resigned and a Japanese section chief who had originally been a soldier took over.
I never got tired or exhausted no matter what I had to do, probably because I was still young. In my free time, I often read books. That was when I read Choi Nam Seon’s Gosatong (Korean Ancient History), Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa (the oldest Korean history books). I also encountered literary pieces by Lee Gwang Su, Lee Gi Young, Han Seol Ya and Lee Tae Jun. But mostly I studied philosophy and mathematics.
At first we were given corn and sorghum to eat. One day, however, they made us eat bean dregs instead. It would have been difficult for me to eat bean dregs for days on end, but thanks to some of my brave friends’, we were soon given multigrain. I still remember very clearly how good the cooked corn was.
There was a good janggi (a Korean game similar to chess) player among the laborers, and I didn’t miss the chance to learn the game from him. Once we played a janggi game for a bet and I lost, so even though it was very late at night, I had to walk four kilometers to the town from the factory, wake a vendor up and buy taffy from him on credit. My memories of Samcheok mostly consist of walking a lot at night and eating lots of ripe persimmon, as there were plenty of them there.
According to rumors, it was only a matter of time before Japan would collapse. Our work was breaking rocks into smaller pieces and transporting them. There was a lathe operator among the laborers, but until then we had never told our managers. However, we did not know how the war situation would develop, so we quickly exaggerated his skills to the foreman so he’d let our man and another person work on the lathes. It was to give them a chance to make short swords as weapons in case we needed them.
Some people were already imbued with leftism, but I was not attracted to communism at that time. However, I did not have enough knowledge to refute it, either. I merely thought, “Why do we need a foreign ideal in order to develop our country? Will we suddenly have better lives if we accept communism, which is not yet understood anyway?’
Watching the East Sea alone from the beach, I missed my parents at home and my sister who used to cook corn for me. I felt my heart getting warm and wondered if I would ever enjoy such happiness again. I missed the old days so much.
But the day of independence was approaching.
On August 15, 1945, all the laborers gathered in front of a radio to hear the Japanese emperor speak. However, there was too much noise; we couldn’t understand a single thing he said. But on the 16th we went to Samcheok town and found thousands of Koreans dressed in white sharing the joy of independence.
With the joy of independence came worries. I did not know much; how was I going to sacrifice myself for my free country? But being free from all the pressure was more joyful than anything. It felt like a heavy iron pot had been lifted off my shoulders and I was growing towards the sky.
We started with 26 people, but now there were only eight left. The eight of us were to go to Seoul on August 17 on a truck fueled by charcoal, thanks to the help of Samcheok community leaders. That morning we hung a Korean flag on the truck and went around the town shouting, “Long Live Korean Independence.” Unfortunately, we were caught by a bunch of Japanese soldiers. They took our flag away and threatened us. We did not have any weapons with us anyway, and decided that it would be meaningless to risk dying to resist people who were feeling spiteful because of their defeat. So we did not resist at all and went back to our motel.
Back then, there was one person among us who happened to be a good fighter. His surname was Sohn, but I do not remember his first name. I had known him ever since I started studying in Tokyo. He used to fight a lot, even at construction sites, so sometimes foremen even begged him to go home, offering him a day’s wages just to leave.
He suggested that we deal with the Korean detective who used to watch over and bully us. We all agreed with his suggestion. That detective was going to Chuncheon on the same truck as us.
The detective came to the motel for the ride. He was about 35 years old and looked very agile, as if he had been fencing or doing judo. But there were eight of us and each one had a sword, so we surrounded him with no fear at all. Sohn spoke first.
“You are a traitor to our people. You deserve to be executed.”
Then the detective answered back calmly, without even blinking.
“I never hurt you. If you are to kill me, then I will have no choice but to defend myself.”
Then he pulled out a gun. We put all our faith in our small swords, but when he pulled out a gun we couldn’t help hesitating.
“We have no plans to kill you. We want to make you realize your sin on your own.”
“It is true that I kept an eye on you as a detective, but it was also an order. And I never once hurt you people. You should not act thoughtlessly just because Japan has fallen.”
He was giving a lecture while surrounded. However, realizing that eight swords couldn’t beat one gun, Sohn tried to end it.
“Fine. We will talk about that matter when we have another chance.”
We let him go just like that. But afterwards, Sohn said, “I let him go because it was difficult for us to punish him here. He’s going with us anyway, so let’s watch out for the right opportunity and kill him in an isolated place.”
We agreed with this as well.