One day in the summer of 1967, a young South Korean army captain named Oh Hyung Jae received a summons from the army counterintelligence corps. His specialty was not espionage, but applied mathematics, which he taught at the Korea Military Academy. What could they want with me?, he wondered as an army Jeep pulled up to his office.
At the counterintelligence bureau in Seoul, an agent was waiting for him. In his hands he held Oh’s old military-academy application from 1955. A grim, knowing look stretched across his face. “Didn’t you leave something out?” he asked Oh, handing him the document. He had: Under the section for “family relations,” Oh had neglected to list one of his brothers, Oh Young Jae, who had gone missing 17 years earlier in the welter of the Korean War. Hyung Jae’s stomach dropped. In the course of a sweeping counterintelligence operation, the South Korean military had discovered that Young Jae had been conscripted by the invading North Korean army in July of 1950—a secret the family had held close since then. In the South Korean military, those with personal ties to North Korea were barred from service. For this reason, Hyung Jae explained, he’d omitted mention of his brother from his application. But that wasn’t all the military knew: Young Jae, whom the family had long since given up for dead, was in fact alive and may be training as a North Korean spy, the officer told Hyung Jae. “I immediately ran outside and broke down in tears,” Hyung Jae said. “The officer told me to let it all out.” The discovery would result in Hyung Jae’s discharge from the army in 1974.
Despite the revelation, “we … went on with our lives. But I don’t think my mother ever truly forgot” about Young Jae, Keun Jae, one of the Oh brothers, told me.
In the following decades, South Korea transformed itself from a poor, war-ravaged nation into a wealthy democracy, deepening the contrast with the opaque, dynastic dictatorship that had emerged in the North. With the war behind them, the Oh brothers settled into careers in academia and started families. As North and South Korea set on vastly divergent paths, reunification became a distant dream, even as thousands of South Koreans like the Ohs, separated from their loved ones during the war, wondered if they would ever see them again.