In Enemy Hands: A Prisoner in North Korea

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Larry Zellers

In Enemy Hands: A Prisoner in North Korea

Published in 1991

When the North Koreans captured cities and villages in South Korea in the first months of the Korean War (1950–53), they arrested people they thought were anticommunist. Among those arrested was Larry Zellers, a Methodist missionary and schoolteacher in the town of Kaesong near the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. In a prison in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Zellers joined a group of eighty-seven civilians from many countries, the United States, France, Britain, Russia, Australia, Belgium, and others. Many had been in Korea as Christian missionaries; others were diplomats and businessmen and their families. The ages of this group of internees ranged from six months old to eighty-two years old. In October 1950, with United Nations forces (allied with the South Koreans) rapidly advancing up toward Pyongyang, the North Koreans decided to move these civilian internees.

When the first marches took place, the internees created systems to help the old and sick. They managed the first part of the trip, the twelve miles from Manpo to a mining town, with great difficulty. There they learned that they were to be placed in the hands of the North Korean army to join with captured American troops in a 120-mile march to the city of Chunggang-jin in the far north. The march, later known as the Death March, was led by a brutal North Korean major called "The Tiger."

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from In Enemy Hands:

  • The North Koreans, like the communist nations of the Soviet Union and China, did not accept organized religion within their society.
  • After the fall of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, many missionaries were arrested by the North Koreans, among them Bishop Patrick Byrne, the Apostolic Delegate to South Korea, several elderly priests and nuns, and the Australian priest Philip Crosbie, who would later write a book about the experience. They were brought before a People's Court and interrogated in front of five hundred South Koreans who sided with the communists. The missionaries were told to renounce their country and their church. None did. The crowd was hostile to the missionaries and foreigners in general, at times screaming for their deaths.

Excerpt from In Enemy Hands: A Prisoner in North Korea

[On October 31, 1950, Zellers and the rest of the group of eighty-seven civilian internees were being turned over to the North Korean prison system. As they waited in uncertainty, a North Korean major strode up to their area of the prison camp. The major spoke to the group, using British internee Herbert A. Lord, director of the Salvation Army in Korea, as a translator.]

"We are going on a long march. I am in command, and I have the authority to make you obey. From now on, you will be under military orders." There was a pause. "You see," he said, pointing to his military epaulette, "I have the authority. Everyone must march. No one must be left behind. You must discard at once anything that canbe used as a weapon. After all, you are my enemy, and I must consider that you might try to do me harm." Having said this in a strong, clear voice, he proceeded down the line of assembled prisoners, pausing to inspect each one. Father Paul Villemot, an eighty-two-year-old French priest, stood at the very head of the line, leaning heavily on a wooden cane. The major marched up to him and tapped the cane with his swagger stick. "Throw that away. That is a weapon."

The major moved swiftly on down the line of prisoners, looking at what each one was carrying. When he came to me, he tapped the rolled-up straw sleeping mat slung across my shoulder. "That can be used as a weapon. Throw it away."

With one task out of the way, the major returned to the front of the group and once more addressed us. Apparently trying to justify what he had just said and done, he continued as before. "You are my enemy, and I must protect myself from you." By this time, several members of the group were trying either directly or through Commissioner Lord to reason with the major. The consensus was that many of the prisoners would not be able to make a long march. I remember Father Villemot speaking up in French with Monsignor Quinlan [an Irish Catholic missionary] translating: "If I have to march, I will die." Similar sentiments were voiced by others.

"Then let them march till they die. That is a military order," the major concluded. So saying, he gave the order to move out.

By this point the major had earned his new name: by common consent, he was referred to as the The Tiger. Soon the long march ahead of us would also have a name—the Death March. The man to lead it was in a hurry, and we could never move fast enough to satisfy him.

To the east, we could see the American POWs also lining up and preparing to march….

[The first night of the Death March the internees were marched until midnight in sleet and snow. Many had inadequate footwear and wore the clothes they had been wearing at the time of their capture, in the warm days of June or July. The next day several weak and ill POWs fell behind in the march. The Tiger held their group leader responsible and, as punishment, bound his hands and shot him in the back of the head, in front of the all the internees, young and old. The next night it was bitterly cold and most of the men and the POWs slept outside again. During the night ten POWs froze to death, and another eight were too weak to go on. The Tiger gave orders to bury all eighteen—the dead and the eight that could not march—and ordered the guards not to leave mounds where they buried them. Many of the older nuns and priests were having such a difficult time walking thatthe others set up a system of helping them. But they all were starving and weak and it was becoming more and more clear that they weren't all going to make it.]

[On the fourth day of the march,] when the order was given to begin the march on this November 3, the women were told to wait for transportation. Some of the weaker ones had had great difficulty the day before, even with the help of the entire group. Nevertheless, I remember that we had some misgivings as we marched away, leaving only Commissioner Lord to look after the women's group. At noon we were ordered to move into a field to wait for the women to catch up….

[When the women had caught up,] two French nuns plus Madame Funderat and Commissioner Lord were still missing. Soon Mother Eugénie appeared on the road all alone except for a guard. She was extremely distraught at having had to leave Mother Béatrix behind, but the guard had ordered her to do so when Mother Béatrix fell far behind the group. Arriving in Korea in 1906, Mother Béatrix had devoted her whole life to working with the poor and the aged. She was seventy-five years old.

Not long after that, we were greeted by the strange sight of Commissioner Lord assisting Madame Funderat by means of a rope tied to each. Lord was exhausted, and I wondered how he could go on, considering his heart problem….

When we resumed march after the noon meal, we were forced to leave Madame Funderat behind with the promise that she would be looked after. Neither she nor Mother Béatrix was ever seen again.

Normally, two people would have had no difficulty assisting a third, but all of us had been on a starvation diet for about a month. Although our bodies had not yet wasted away as much as they would later on, we were little more than living skeletons. Our bones were covered with cracked, dirty skin; we had scruffy beards and long, dirty, matted hair. Our ragged summer clothes and hollow eyes completed the testimony to our depleted condition.

Little clusters of people from our various groups were scattered up and down the road for miles that afternoon. Monsignor Quinlan and Father Crosbie were trying to assist the oldest member of our group. Father Villemot, who had come to Korea in 1892, was eighty-two years of age on the Death March. Not having teeth, he could not eat the half-cooked corn that the local villagers prepared for us. As the old man's strength failed, Bishop Quinlan and Father Crosbie wererequired to carry more and more of the burden. Slowly, these three men dropped behind and were soon out of sight. At one time Father Villemot begged to be left to die in a farmyard. Finally, he was permitted to ride in an oxcart….

Toward evening, more POWs fell out of line, unable to keep up. As we walked past them, we tried to encourage them to keep walking as long as possible. Some did make a new effort, but others remained by the side of the road. Later, we heard many gunshots behind us; we knew what was happening.

On this particular afternoon, I noticed something different. The guard who marched by my side was not like most of the others. My burden became greater near nightfall, and I was obliged to fall behind rather than abandon the malnourished, weak, and frail Anglican nun by the side of the road to die alone. The main body of marching prisoners was miles ahead. Darkness was fast approaching, but this guard stayed by my side, offering encouragement. As other groups of two fell behind—one stronger, one weaker, but together trying to trade a little time in exchange for a life—each couple was assigned a guard, and the decision was his whether to tolerate the delay. Many did not. The sound of the gun was heard in the gathering darkness. (Zellers, pp. 84–85, 106–08)

What happened next…

The Death March lasted nine days and was completed on November 8, 1950. Out of eighty-seven civilians and about seven hundred soldiers, about one hundred people died during the march. Many who survived the march would soon die in the North Korean prison from the extreme deprivation—lack of food, heat, sleep, and medical attention—and unsanitary conditions experienced during and after the march.

The survivors endured very bad conditions in North Korean prisons for the next two and a half years. By April 1953, when the peace talks began to progress, those who had survived prison were emaciated (dangerously thin), sick, dirty, and frail. At that time, they were taken to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where for some time they were well fed, provided with new clothing, and allowed daily baths. The North Koreans wanted publicity about the humaneness with which they treated the prisoners, but none in the group was willing to go along with them.

Did you know …

  • According to Larry Zellers, as many as twenty people a day died in the prison camp where he was interned.
  • When the United Nations and the communist forces (North Korean and Chinese) exchanged prisoner lists, the United Nations expected the communists to be holding a good portion of the missing: 11,500 Americans and 88,000 South Koreans. The communist list, however, showed only 3,198 Americans, 7,142 South Koreans, and 1,200 other UN prisoners of war. The communists claimed that many soldiers had died of disease while in prison and others had been killed when UN air attacks had struck prisoner of war camps.

Where to Learn More

Crosbie, Philip. March Till They Die. Dublin: Browne & Nolan, c. 1955.

Toland, John, In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Zellers, Larry. In Enemy Hands: A Prisoner in North Korea. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Web sites

"Tiger Survivors: Civilian Internee Prisoners." [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).