North Korean orphans feel at home in Europe

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North Korean orphans feel at home in Europe

Kim Deog-young, director of the documentary "Two Homes" tracing Korean War orphans from the North in Europe in the 1950s, visited Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania to make the film. He produced the documentary based on extensive interviews with locals who taught the North Korean orphans and their friends. He also researched the rare war-time migration. "Two Homes" will have its world premiere at an international film festival in Europe in October. / Photo from the director

'Two Homes' puts together the shards of the forgotten history

By Kang Hyun-kyung

In May 1957, the North Korean embassy in Warsaw received an urgent telegram from the Polish spy agency. It read two North Korean children had been caught at a border security checkpoint after their failed attempt to enter Germany. The two children were handed over to the North Korean agents and then sent back to the North.

No one has heard from them since.

The two unnamed boys were Korean War orphans who were protected at an orphanage in Plakowice, Poland. In the 1950s, the small Polish city was home to some 1,400 Korean War orphans who were sent there for education and vocational training.

Thousands of war orphans were loaded onto trains for several Eastern European countries during and after the 1950-53 Korean War. The rare wartime migration came as those governments accepted then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's plea to care for them temporarily.

Knowing their days in Europe were numbered as they were to be repatriated to North Korea soon, some children became defiant and maneuvered to stay in Europe.

The escapees' cases came against this backdrop.

Kim Deog-young, director of the documentary film
"Two Homes" which traces the Korean War orphans who arrived in Europe, said many of the war orphans were traumatized as they experienced the brutal war that took the lives of their parents.

"They displayed extreme fear and anxiety after arriving in European orphanages. But they adapted to the new environment well and felt at home in Europe as the years passed," he told The Korea Times. "Facing calls to return to North Korea, some children displayed uneasiness. The escapees' cases were reported in several European countries that hosted the North Korean children, such as Romania, Hungary and Poland."

Some escapees had to face the tragic consequences of their failed attempts.

A North Korean orphan in Romania was to be adopted by a local family but the adoption had not gone well. He chose to run back the orphanage. It was a day before he and other North Korean children at an orphanage in the northeastern Romanian town of Siret were scheduled to be repatriated to North Korea. The other children brutally battered him and he became crippled. He and the other children were sent back to the North as scheduled.

"Two Homes" will be screened at an international film festival in October.

Kim, 54, mentioned the Sofia Independent Film Festival slated for Oct. 26 to Nov. 5, revealing hope his documentary can have a world premiere there.

The filmmaker has submitted applications for the screening of "Two Homes" to the organizers of some 20 film festivals to be held in Europe and North America and is waiting for the results.

"Two Homes" features local residents who are aware of the migration of thousands of North Korean children into Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Some of them were teachers and some were friends of the Korean War orphans.

Kim traced their lost history based on his extensive interviews with the surviving teachers, friends and staff of orphanages that housed the North Korean children.

People were willing to share their photos of the children and letters they received from the orphans after they went back to North Korea.

Kim said the
Korean War orphans in Europe was tough to uncover.

The children were there in the 1950s, six decades ago. Few documents or reports exist about their presence in Europe. The Eastern European nations' decisions to accept Kim Il-sung's request were a touchy domestic issue.

Europe was still recovering from World War II. In the 1950s, post-war reconstruction was still going on there and all resources were mobilized to rebuild their nations. So the leaders of the European countries were wary of the possible backlash from the public for using taxes to take care of the Korean War orphans.
Few knew about their presence in Eastern Europe, other than teachers and those who were involved in the orphanages.

The language barrier is another challenge Kim faced all during his film project. The five countries he visited ― Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania ― for the film project each have languages.

"Digging into information about the North Koreans, who were there decades ago, was challenging. Finding people who remember their presence or have first-hand experience with them was also tough," he said. "While shooting the documentary for three months in Europe and spending another five months editing, many thoughts came across my mind. I think 'Two Homes' is a thought-provoking film because it raises the issue about war orphans and how the issue should be handled. For me, it was a humanism project. I met many Europeans who still miss the North Koreans, even though chances of reunion with them are very slim."

The poster for "Two Homes" / Photo from the director

Kim was inspired to make a documentary about the Korean War orphans 15 years ago when he filmed an elderly Romanian woman who was missing her husband.

Georgeta Mircioiu, then 72, had been yearning to reunite with her North Korean husband, Cho Jung-ho, from whom she has been separated for decades since the 1960s when she took her sick daughter Miran for treatment at a Romanian hospital. Her visa application to go back to North Korea was denied. Mircioiu met her husband at an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania, in 1952. Her future husband had brought the North Korean orphans to the orphanage where she was a teacher.

Intrigued by the little-known history, Kim headed to Romania right away to search for more information about the war orphans after the documentary aired on KBS that year.

His field trip was fruitful. After doing research in Romanian film archives, national and university libraries, he discovered a short documentary film and photos showing the young North Koreans. The evidence he gathered revealed that Romania was not the only country that hosted the Korean War orphans.

However, it took 15 years for Kim, 54, to film the documentary in Europe.

"Two Homes" is not the first movie about the North Korean children in Europe. Director Choo Sang-mi's 2018 documentary "The Children Gone to Poland" featured the same topic. There are also YouTube videos about them. Those films tell the stories of the Korean War orphans in Poland.

Compared to these works, "Two Homes" covers their stories extensively in four other European countries. Through his project, Kim reached a conclusion about Kim Il-sung's motives behind his sudden call for the orphans to be returned to the North. Repatriation of the orphans was completed by 1959, three years after the North Korean leader's state visit to Eastern Europe.

According to the filmmaker, Kim Il-sung might have been wary of the children who were exposed to European ways of thinking and the rise of the liberal movement that swept Eastern Europe after the death of Joseph Stalin.

"During his state visit to Eastern European countries, Kim Il-sung met the North Korean children at the orphanage in Poland. He would have sensed that the children were different from their cohorts in North Korea. Back then, the orphans had stayed in Europe there for four or five years, depending on the children, and had become quite European," the director said.

He went on to say the circumstances in Europe and North Korea were not in favor of the North Korean leader. Inside North Korea, there was an uprising against Kim.

In Europe, the Hungarian uprising took place in October 1956 through which protesters called for the toppling of the pro-Soviet government, cutting the Soviet influence on the country as well as establishing a set of liberal measures. "The North Korean leader would have felt the Europeanized children could pose a threat to North Korea in the future," the filmmaker said.


Kim Deog-young, director of the documentary "Two Homes" tracing Korean War orphans from the North in Europe in the 1950s, visited Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania to make the film. He produced the documentary based on extensive interviews with locals who taught the North Korean orphans and their friends. He also researched the rare war-time migration. "Two Homes" will have its world premiere at an international film festival in Europe in October. / Photo from the director

'Two Homes' puts together the shards of the forgotten history

By Kang Hyun-kyung

In May 1957, the North Korean embassy in Warsaw received an urgent telegram from the Polish spy agency. It read two North Korean children had been caught at a border security checkpoint after their failed attempt to enter Germany. The two children were handed over to the North Korean agents and then sent back to the North.

No one has heard from them since.

The two unnamed boys were Korean War orphans who were protected at an orphanage in Plakowice, Poland. In the 1950s, the small Polish city was home to some 1,400 Korean War orphans who were sent there for education and vocational training.

Thousands of war orphans were loaded onto trains for several Eastern European countries during and after the 1950-53 Korean War. The rare wartime migration came as those governments accepted then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's plea to care for them temporarily.

Knowing their days in Europe were numbered as they were to be repatriated to North Korea soon, some children became defiant and maneuvered to stay in Europe.

The escapees' cases came against this backdrop.

Kim Deog-young, director of the documentary film
"Two Homes" which traces the Korean War orphans who arrived in Europe, said many of the war orphans were traumatized as they experienced the brutal war that took the lives of their parents.

"They displayed extreme fear and anxiety after arriving in European orphanages. But they adapted to the new environment well and felt at home in Europe as the years passed," he told The Korea Times. "Facing calls to return to North Korea, some children displayed uneasiness. The escapees' cases were reported in several European countries that hosted the North Korean children, such as Romania, Hungary and Poland."

Some escapees had to face the tragic consequences of their failed attempts.

A North Korean orphan in Romania was to be adopted by a local family but the adoption had not gone well. He chose to run back the orphanage. It was a day before he and other North Korean children at an orphanage in the northeastern Romanian town of Siret were scheduled to be repatriated to North Korea. The other children brutally battered him and he became crippled. He and the other children were sent back to the North as scheduled.

"Two Homes" will be screened at an international film festival in October.

Kim, 54, mentioned the Sofia Independent Film Festival slated for Oct. 26 to Nov. 5, revealing hope his documentary can have a world premiere there.

The filmmaker has submitted applications for the screening of "Two Homes" to the organizers of some 20 film festivals to be held in Europe and North America and is waiting for the results.

"Two Homes" features local residents who are aware of the migration of thousands of North Korean children into Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Some of them were teachers and some were friends of the Korean War orphans.

Kim traced their lost history based on his extensive interviews with the surviving teachers, friends and staff of orphanages that housed the North Korean children.

People were willing to share their photos of the children and letters they received from the orphans after they went back to North Korea.

Kim said the
Korean War orphans in Europe was tough to uncover.

The children were there in the 1950s, six decades ago. Few documents or reports exist about their presence in Europe. The Eastern European nations' decisions to accept Kim Il-sung's request were a touchy domestic issue.

Europe was still recovering from World War II. In the 1950s, post-war reconstruction was still going on there and all resources were mobilized to rebuild their nations. So the leaders of the European countries were wary of the possible backlash from the public for using taxes to take care of the Korean War orphans.
Few knew about their presence in Eastern Europe, other than teachers and those who were involved in the orphanages.

The language barrier is another challenge Kim faced all during his film project. The five countries he visited ― Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania ― for the film project each have languages.

"Digging into information about the North Koreans, who were there decades ago, was challenging. Finding people who remember their presence or have first-hand experience with them was also tough," he said. "While shooting the documentary for three months in Europe and spending another five months editing, many thoughts came across my mind. I think 'Two Homes' is a thought-provoking film because it raises the issue about war orphans and how the issue should be handled. For me, it was a humanism project. I met many Europeans who still miss the North Koreans, even though chances of reunion with them are very slim."

The poster for "Two Homes" / Photo from the director

Kim was inspired to make a documentary about the Korean War orphans 15 years ago when he filmed an elderly Romanian woman who was missing her husband.

Georgeta Mircioiu, then 72, had been yearning to reunite with her North Korean husband, Cho Jung-ho, from whom she has been separated for decades since the 1960s when she took her sick daughter Miran for treatment at a Romanian hospital. Her visa application to go back to North Korea was denied. Mircioiu met her husband at an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania, in 1952. Her future husband had brought the North Korean orphans to the orphanage where she was a teacher.

Intrigued by the little-known history, Kim headed to Romania right away to search for more information about the war orphans after the documentary aired on KBS that year.

His field trip was fruitful. After doing research in Romanian film archives, national and university libraries, he discovered a short documentary film and photos showing the young North Koreans. The evidence he gathered revealed that Romania was not the only country that hosted the Korean War orphans.

However, it took 15 years for Kim, 54, to film the documentary in Europe.

"Two Homes" is not the first movie about the North Korean children in Europe. Director Choo Sang-mi's 2018 documentary "The Children Gone to Poland" featured the same topic. There are also YouTube videos about them. Those films tell the stories of the Korean War orphans in Poland.

Compared to these works, "Two Homes" covers their stories extensively in four other European countries. Through his project, Kim reached a conclusion about Kim Il-sung's motives behind his sudden call for the orphans to be returned to the North. Repatriation of the orphans was completed by 1959, three years after the North Korean leader's state visit to Eastern Europe.

According to the filmmaker, Kim Il-sung might have been wary of the children who were exposed to European ways of thinking and the rise of the liberal movement that swept Eastern Europe after the death of Joseph Stalin.

"During his state visit to Eastern European countries, Kim Il-sung met the North Korean children at the orphanage in Poland. He would have sensed that the children were different from their cohorts in North Korea. Back then, the orphans had stayed in Europe there for four or five years, depending on the children, and had become quite European," the director said.

He went on to say the circumstances in Europe and North Korea were not in favor of the North Korean leader. Inside North Korea, there was an uprising against Kim.

In Europe, the Hungarian uprising took place in October 1956 through which protesters called for the toppling of the pro-Soviet government, cutting the Soviet influence on the country as well as establishing a set of liberal measures. "The North Korean leader would have felt the Europeanized children could pose a threat to North Korea in the future," the filmmaker said.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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