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Meet the North Koreans who haven't been able to return home in over 70 years

Lee Choo-sum (left) and Lee Geum-soon look for free fish or seafood from boats in Abai Village on Sept. 8, 2023. Both women left North Korea when the war broke out and have lived in the village for the past 70 years.
Hannah Yoon
Lee Choo-sum (left) and Lee Geum-soon look for free fish or seafood from boats in Abai Village on Sept. 8, 2023. Both women left North Korea when the war broke out and have lived in the village for the past 70 years.

Editor's Note: This piece is published as the world marks the 74th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

Situated on the eastern shore of South Korea rests an unassuming village home to resettled North Korean refugees who fled southward during the Korean War, often referred to as the Forgotten War in the U.S. Abai Village, inhabited by approximately a dozen displaced individuals from the north, occupies a small expanse of land within the coastal city of Sokcho. It initially served as an unofficial refuge for thousands of North Koreans who held the belief that they would eventually return to their homeland upon the end of the war.

Amid mounting tensions between the north and south before the war, some individuals made the decision to relocate to Seoul in order to avoid potential conflict. However, it was primarily the outbreak of the war that witnessed a mass exodus of thousands from the north.

School children walk around Abai Village on Sept. 10, 2023. The village is now a tourist destination due to its history of being a village of displaced people from North Korea. Only a few dozen displaced people remain.
Hannah Yoon /
School children walk around Abai Village on Sept. 10, 2023. The village is now a tourist destination due to its history of being a village of displaced people from North Korea. Only a few dozen displaced people remain.
Friends Lee Hwa-ja, Jun Sook-ja (center) and Choi Gi-hwal rest after picking up garbage around Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Friends Lee Hwa-ja, Jun Sook-ja (center) and Choi Gi-hwal rest after picking up garbage around Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
A meal of kimchi, fish, tofu and rice sits on a small dining table in Kim Yong-jae’s living room at her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 11, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
A meal of kimchi, fish, tofu and rice sits on a small dining table in Kim Yong-jae’s living room at her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 11, 2023.
Kim Yong-jae, 82, gets off the Gaetbae ferry in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Yong-jae, 82, gets off the Gaetbae ferry in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
King Yong-jae, 82, is silhouetted by her window at her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 14, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Yong-jae, 82, is silhouetted by her window at her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 14, 2023.

During the Third Battle of Seoul in 1951, the North Korean military and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army formed an alliance, aiming to exert pressure on United Nations forces so they would withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Many Koreans and U.N. forces fled south toward Busan.

It was at this time that approximately 6,000 North Koreans from Hamgyong Province decided to resettle in Sokcho, South Korea, with the hope of returning home, given its proximity to the north. While awaiting their return, they established their own community, known as Abai Village. The word abai (아바이) comes from the Hamgyong Province dialect and means "uncle" or "aged person."

The land was too muddy for homes to be built, so the refugees’ houses were, initially, more like temporary shelters because most people planned on going back north.

The signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, marked the official closure of the border but not the end of the war. Consequently, those who had fled to the south were not allowed to return to their homeland. Due to the continuing tensions between North and South Korea, thousands of aging North Koreans have been permanently separated from their homeland.

<strong>Left:</strong> A local’s residence is seen in Abai Village on the evening of Sept. 13, 2023. <strong>Right:</strong> Kim Yong-jae, 81, holds her dress in the morning  in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 14, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Left: A local’s residence is seen in Abai Village on the evening of Sept. 13, 2023. Right: Kim Yong-jae, 81, holds her dress in the morning in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 14, 2023.
Kim Yong-jae, 82, left, and her friend, Kwon Gye-soon, 70, watch the news of a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kim’s home in Abai Village on Sept. 12, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Yong-jae, 82, left, and her friend, Kwon Gye-soon, 70, watch the news of a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kim’s home in Abai Village on Sept. 12, 2023.
Old photos of Kim Yong-jae’s mother (left) and grandmother sit in a frame at Kim’s home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Old photos of Kim Yong-jae’s mother (left) and grandmother sit in a frame at Kim’s home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
Kim Yong-jae, 82, peels garlic in her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 9, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Yong-jae, 82, peels garlic in her home in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 9, 2023.
Kim Yong-jae, 82, sits as she rides the Gaetbae ferry while visitors take photos around her in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 17, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Yong-jae, 82, sits as she rides the Gaetbae ferry while visitors take photos around her in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 17, 2023.

One such individual is Kim Yong Jae, who has resided in Abai Village since 1951, when she was 10 years old. Having fled the north during the war with her mother and grandmother, Kim mainly views Abai Village as her home and, despite the passing of many of her friends and seeing her children relocate to larger cities, she says she finds solace and comfort within the confines of the village.

Kim spends most of her days shopping, prepping seafood side dishes (banchan) for her friends, seeing neighbors and playing with her Nanta drum group.

As she thinks about her life before the war, she remembers the abundance and comfort she experienced. Her father's employment in the railway industry provided financial stability and a comfortable life. She reminisces about her beautiful home and the numerous relatives who frequently visited her family.

Others, such as Jun Sook-ja, Kim Kim Chul-hwan and Lee Geum-soon, have found ways to pass time on the village, whether it's volunteering to clean the island, prepping dishes for their families and friends or playing Hwatu, a traditional Korean gambling game. As the only ones still alive from the north, they are familiar with each other and consider one another like family.

Kim Il-dong walks in his alleyway in Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 16, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Il-dong walks in his alleyway in Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 16, 2023.
Kim Il-dong (left) and his friend, Kim Chul-hwan, sit together at Il-dong’s home in Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 11, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Il-dong (left) and his friend, Kim Chul-hwan, sit together at Il-dong’s home in Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 11, 2023.
Kim Chul-hwan, 85, shaves while sitting in his room at his home in Abai Village on Sept. 10, 2023. Kim left North Korea when he was 13 and has been displaced for the past 70 years, living in the village since 1953.
Hannah Yoon /
Kim Chul-hwan, 85, shaves while sitting in his room at his home in Abai Village on Sept. 10, 2023. Kim left North Korea when he was 13 and has been displaced for the past 70 years, living in the village since 1953.
An aerial view of Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
Hannah Yoon /
An aerial view of Abai Village in Sokcho, South Korea, on Sept. 12, 2023.
A group of friends, all seniors displaced from North Korea when they were young, play Go-Stop, a Korean card game, in Abai Village Sept. 10, 2023. Lee Hwa-ja (from left), Lim Joeng-ok, Lee Geum-soon and Choi Gi-hwal all lived in Korea's northern provinces before the country was divided. All fled with their families to escape the war, thinking they would eventually return home when the war ended.
Hannah Yoon /
A group of friends, all seniors displaced from North Korea when they were young, play Go-Stop, a Korean card game, in Abai Village Sept. 10, 2023. Lee Hwa-ja (from left), Lim Joeng-ok, Lee Geum-soon and Choi Gi-hwal all lived in Korea's northern provinces before the country was divided. All fled with their families to escape the war, thinking they would eventually return home when the war ended.

Until the late 1980s, Abai Village boasted the highest concentration of resettled North Koreans in South Korea. Presently, the largest group of displaced North Koreans reside in Seoul, while Abai Village has evolved into a cultural tourist destination.

Now, the generation that once knew and experienced a unified Korea is gradually transitioning into a historical chapter of the country. Abai Village's transformation has left behind minimal remnants of its original character. Among the small tin-roofed homes, you can find coffee shops, bakeries, a quiet beach and a relatively small restaurant scene all serving similar dishes — North Korean cold noodles with spicy pollock and various squid dishes.

For North Koreans who have relocated to the south, the legacy of the war persists as a deeply personal matter. This legacy encompasses a myriad of emotions, including different opportunities, loss, growth and a profound sense of yearning for the life they knew up north.

Jun Sook-ja, 91 (left), sits at a restaurant in Abai Village as tourists walk by on Sept. 9, 2023. The village has become a tourist destination known for being a village of displaced people who settled here after the Korean War.
Hannah Yoon /
Jun Sook-ja, 91 (left), sits at a restaurant in Abai Village as tourists walk by on Sept. 9, 2023. The village has become a tourist destination known for being a village of displaced people who settled here after the Korean War.

This project was supported by the National Geographic Society Grant.

Hannah Yoon is a documentary photographer based in Philadelphia, Pa. You can see more of her work on her website, hannahyoon.com,  or on Instagram at @hanloveyoon.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Hannah Yoon