DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On this day in 1950, North Korea invaded the South, igniting the first major conflict of the Cold War. Seventy years later, the Korean War has still not officially ended. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yeongju, South Korea, on a little-known group of fighters in what Americans often call the forgotten war.
PARK TAE-SEUNG: (Chanting in non-English language).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Every day at 5 a.m., Park Tae-seung sits on the floor of his prayer hall wearing earth-brown robes and chanting Buddhist sutras. He's still trying to come to terms with the events of 70 years ago. He remembers being drafted at age 17 shortly after the war broke out. Park knew and the army knew that he was under age. But with the country about to fall, everyone looked the other way.
PARK: (Through interpreter) So I went to serve half willingly, half forced to do it.
KUHN: North Korean troops had occupied all but the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Here's a 1950s U.S. government newsreel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: September 1, an all-out red offensive across the Naktong tightens our circle of defense. The siege of the Pusan Perimeter is on.
KUHN: Park was one of 30,000 child soldiers - aged 14 to 17 - drafted during the war. He was given a couple of days of training and sent to the front as a rifleman. He says he ate a few rice balls a day, which did not give him enough energy to lug his heavy gear up and down the steep hills.
PARK: (Through interpreter) Child soldiers were physically not as strong as the older soldiers. But as we were 15 and 16 years old, I think we were less afraid of death.
KUHN: Park was with U.S., U.N. and South Korean forces as they fought their way out of the Pusan Perimeter into North Korea and captured Pyongyang. Then China joined the war on North Korea's side and drove U.S. and South Korean troops back across the 38th parallel. On the retreat south, the child soldiers fell behind the older, faster troops. With the enemy hard on their heels, a fellow child soldier Park was with got hit.
PARK: (Through interpreter) At first he asked me to take him and save him. But as he became short of breath, he seemed to realize that he couldn't make it. Then he asked me to shoot him.
KUHN: Park believes he never killed an enemy soldier, but he did put his comrade out of his misery.
PARK: (Through interpreter) If we hadn't been so young, we wouldn't have had to make that kind of sacrifice.
KUHN: The memories are still painful. And Park's strong, clear voice quavers and trails off into silence.
PARK: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: Their story may be obscure, but some believe the child soldiers saved the nation from defeat. Lee Sang Ho (ph) is a historian at the Institute for Military History under the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul and the co-author of a book on the child soldiers. He cites Paik Sun-yup, one of South Korea's most famous wartime generals.
LEE SANG HO: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: "He wrote in his memoir," he says, "that without the child soldiers, the Pusan Perimeter would have been overrun." Lee says that the former child soldiers lived tough post-war lives.
LEE: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: "They left the army in their early 20s," he says, "and therefore, couldn't finish middle school or high school. They basically existed at the bottom of society." Park Tae-seung spent his postwar life doing menial labor. For a long time, he felt that life was unfair. He's also angry at the lack of recognition or an apology from the South Korean government, and that there's no monument to the child soldiers. Park organized the former child soldiers and lobbied lawmakers for decades in vain. He believes the government is embarrassed about having sent children into war.
PARK: (Through interpreter) That's a violation of the law and of human rights, isn't it? North Korea treats its child soldiers as heroes.
KUHN: Park is eternally grateful for America's help, but he also believes that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the child soldiers, as it had operational control over the South Korean army during the war. In the 1970s, Park says he turned to Buddhism as a way to help the fallen child soldiers whom he calls unblossomed buds.
PARK: (Through interpreter) What I can do as a living person is to pray for their souls, not necessarily to help them get to paradise. I don't have the ability to do that. The biggest reason I pray every day is that comrade I killed.
KUHN: Nearly 90 years old and running low on money and energy, Park disbanded his group of child soldiers fighting for recognition this spring. He continues his daily rituals of chanting and praying.
PARK: (Chanting in non-English language).
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yeongju, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.