1968 was a tense time to live in Korea. Throughout the year, North Korean (Korean People’s Army) and South Korean (Republic of Korea Army) forces were engaged in small skirmishes along the DMZ. 1968 was also the year that North Korea made multiple attempts to sneak down below the 38th parallel. In January of that year, North Korean secret operative unit 124 snuck into the South and unsuccessfully attempted an assassination on South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Around the same time, the U.S.S Pueblo and her crew were taken into custody by the North Korean Navy.
Later that year, on October 30th, one hundred twenty members of unit 214 infiltrated the south, this time along the coast of Gangwon Province. The special ops unit was on a thirty-day mission to set up guerilla bases in the Taebaeksan mountain range and indoctrinate people from the small villages along the eastern coast. When the ROK Army arrived, most of unit 124 were killed. Seven were captured, and three escaped back north. Unfortunately, twenty-three civilians lost their lives in the battle. One boy named Lee Seung-bok was one of them, and his story has become well-known in South Korea.
On the night of December 9th, North Korean soldiers broke into Lee Seung-bok’s home in search of food and a place to rest. The North Korean soldiers, for whatever reason, murdered Lee Seung-bok, his mother, and younger siblings. This actually happened. The murder of an innocent family is a documented fact. You can even see grisly photos of their bodies here. As to what was actually said during the event, we may never know the unvarnished truth. The story goes that soldier is unit 124 asked Lee Seung-bok if he favored North Korea or South Korea. When Lee said he preferred the Republic of Korea, the soldiers started beating him. Despite being pummelled, the boy shouted, ” I HATE COMMUNISTS!” which enraged the soldiers to kill him and his family. Only his father and older brother escaped.
My first thought is disbelief. It sounds too much like propaganda to be trusted. Maybe the young nine-year-old boy really did summon the courage to stand up to the reds. For me, this story doesn’t pass the smell test.
I bring this bit of Korean history up because I was curious as to who to find out who this child was and why he was memorialized on a statue. A cursory search of the internet ensued. A hashtag search on Instagram shows countless Lee Seung-bok statues placed on schools throughout the country, including one inside the Children’s Museum right across the street from my apartment. Many statues were erected on school grounds built around the 1970s. I was surprised to find an English language Wikipedia article of the boy as well.
Besides Lee Seung-bok’s statue, there were other statues placed in front of the school. I could not determine their purpose. Maybe they were there to create a safe, inviting, and inspiring learning environment. I have seen the statue of the reading girl at other schools as well. A statue of 16th-century naval commander Yi Sun-shin (이순신
李舜臣) guards the rear of the school. While you don’t see many Lee Seung-bok statues in newer schools today, possibly because of the thorny politics involved, everyone on both sides agrees that Yi Sun-shin statues are worthy of being placed on school grounds.
Now, some history about the school. It was founded and established on March 1st, 1968. Some of you might know that March 1st is a holiday in Korea. It commemorated the day in 1919 when Koreans organized to fight the Japanese occupation of Korea. In February 1971, this school opened to the public. It closed it’s doors in March 2009, merging with another local elementary school. In total, 1,158 students graduated from this rural primary school. Many of the closed schools in the country I’ve visited are sealed shut, but we found the front door unlocked.
The most exciting discoveries of this place were the murals found in two separate classrooms and some teacher’s hanja lessons left unvandalized.
While there weren’t any exciting discoveries like in Nam Gwang Hospital or the Shaman Hoarder’s House, the school provided an opportunity to discover more Korean history. That, for me, is an Urbex win.