Seventy years have passed since the end of the Korean War in 1953. With over 36,000 American fatalities and millions of Korean casualties, it was a heavy price to pay to prevent Korea from completely falling into communist hands. When the Soviets decided to support Kim Il Sung’s aspirations to extend his leadership to South Korea, America stepped in to protect its ally. It was the first major conflict of the Cold War era.
Often called “The Forgotten War” (with the World Wars and the Vietnam War garnering more attention), many young people today may be unfamiliar with this part of history. Julie Lee’s Young Adult historical fiction “In The Tunnel” covers the Korean War through the eyes of a North Korean teen. It is not only informative, but age-appropriate as well.
“In the Tunnel” starts with the 16-year-old Myung-gi finding himself in the “Battle of Triangle Hill” in October 1952. Caught in the crossfires of battle, he tries to flee and dodge bullets, but falls off a cliff and lands in a giant hole—ironically, an enemy tunnel—trapped inside as the rocks cave in around him. He questions how he ended up in a war “fighting people who look like him, who eat rice like him, who celebrate Lunar New Year like him—North Korean soldiers and their Chinese allies.”
A Childhood InterruptedMs. Lee moves the narrative from Myung-gi’s entrapment in the tunnel to scenes from his childhood. The first flashback sees Korea newly liberated from the Japanese at the end of World War II, only to be immediately subjugated by another group of tyrants—the Soviets. As an avid book reader, Myung-gi is disheartened when the Soviets start banning Western books and any reading materials that decry communism and its ideals.
Somehow, his scholarly father finds ways to smuggle in books, including a paperback copy of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” for him to read. Not even his own mother and sister know this secret, as a slip of a tongue or a seemingly harmless comment might lead to disclosure and discovery, which would be the downfall of his family.
He worries when his father mentions God in a lighthearted comment, as God has also been banned in communist North Korea. It is a life governed by fear of punishment and retribution. He copes by escaping into the pages of his banned books.
While immersed in one of these books, Myung-gi is unaware that his father had been taken away unceremoniously by four uniformed men. He feels culpable and is unable to shake this feeling off as he leads his mother and sister over the perilous roads and byways to escape the communist-governed areas of Korea.
A New Life
The family makes it to Busan, the provisional capital of South Korea during the war years. As the family of three settles into some semblance of a normal life, Myung-gi continues to wrestle with his guilt. In the hopes of finding his father, he decides to sign up with the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) in order to be sent to the north. The story then circles back to his entrapment in the tunnel.
Readers quickly understand that Myung-gi is not the typical hero. He lacks the street smarts that his younger sister has and the physical strength and coordination that could have made him a good soldier. However, he later realizes that he has his own strengths, which will help him cope with the horrors he’s had to live through.
Historical NotesMs. Lee’s well-researched story stems not only from vicarious accounts of those who escaped from North Korea, but also from primary sources. Myung-gi is an amalgamation of several child soldiers who were either conscripted for the war or who voluntarily enlisted. It is a group of combatants who have struggled to be recognized and are considered the “forgotten casualties of war.”
Ms. Lee also narrates an event that took place during the war and was not officially recognized until 1960. In one scene, Myung-gi, his family, and other refugees were crossing a bridge to get to Busan. To prevent the enemy from crossing over, U.S. commanders ordered the bridge to be blown up, killing scores of innocent civilians. Myung-gi barely escapes by jumping into the water before the bomb goes off, but witnesses the death of many who couldn’t escape the blast. It is a shock to the system for one so young and who had never really known the harsh realities of the world until the war thrust them upon him.
The book ends with an emotional epilogue showing how the family members fared 35 years after the war ended. Though Myung-gi’s story is fictional, it is very real to those who lived it and survived it. Ms. Lee does not give it a fairy-tale happy ending; after all, as her research shows that “an astounding 10 million Koreans were permanently separated from their immediate family after the Korean War.” She does, however, emphasize the importance of forgiveness and moving on.
This book captures the horrors of living under communist rule and the impact of war on children. Though “In the Tunnel” was published for younger readers (ages 8 to 12 years old), some scenes described in the book may be better geared for older readers. Old or young, readers will learn much from these stories.
‘In the Tunnel’ By Julie Lee Holiday House, May 30, 2023 Hardcover: 304 pages
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