SEOUL — When he watched the scenes of desperate refugees trying to escape Afghanistan during the American withdrawal ㅡ mothers clutching babies, men begging to board airplanes in Kabul — Sohn Yang-young, 70, felt tears welling up in his eyes, his heart aching as if he were there.
His family had lived through a similarly traumatic wartime experience.
Mr. Sohn’s parents were among 91,000 refugees that the American military evacuated from Hungnam, a port on the eastern coast of North Korea, in a frantic retreat from Chinese Communist troops during the Korean War in 1950. They boarded the last ship leaving the port with refugees — the S.S. Meredith Victory, a United States merchant marine cargo freighter.
Mr. Sohn was one of five babies born on the ship.
“When I watched the chaotic scenes at the Afghan airport, I thought of my parents and the same life-or-death situation they had gone through in Hungnam,” Mr. Sohn said in an interview. “I could not fight back tears, especially when I saw those children.”
Mass extrajudicial executions of civilians accused of collaborating with the enemy were rampant during the war.
said Han Geum-suk, a nurse in Hamhung who joined the evacuation. “We rushed through the cross-fire back and forth several times before we could catch a ship. The ground was strewn with people with their luggages who were killed. There was hardly any standing room on the ship.”
Few events of the Korean War have seared the psyche of older South Koreans as deeply as the Hungnam evacuation, which they saw as a symbol of wartime calamity and humanitarian grace. It is memorialized in South Korean textbooks, as well as in one of the country’s most beloved pop songs. “Ode to My Father,” a 2014 movie based in part on the evacuation, became one of the highest-grossing films in the history of South Korean cinema.
Mr. Moon’s parents were among the refugees who caught the Meredith Victory. The ship, designed to carry no more than 59 people, left Hungnam on Dec. 23, 1950, with 14,000 refugees. Sailing with no escort, it arrived at Geoje Island, off the south coast of South Korea, on Christmas Day. Mr. Moon, who was born in a refugee camp on Geoje in 1953, said his mother used to tell him about the candies handed out to refugees who were jam-packed into the cargo hull on Christmas Eve.