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Student soldiers who were wounded fighting Korean War warn of complacency in South today

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The 15-year-old boy prayed silently beside a freshly dug grave as he and other prisoners waited to be shot by a North Korean firing squad.

Kim Man-kyu, barely taller than his M-1 rifle, had fought with other South Korean student volunteers in an 11-hour battle before being captured just weeks into the 1950-53 Korean War.

"Suddenly, a fighter jet appeared and bombed and fired machine guns at the area," recalled Kim, now a 75-year-old retired pastor. Under attack, the North Koreans abandoned the execution of the prisoners, including some American soldiers.

About 100,000 South Korean students volunteered to fight in the Korean War, which broke out 60 years ago Friday. More than 1,970 perished, according to the War Memorial of Korea, a national museum in Seoul.

Kim was one of 71 students whose story is told in a blockbuster, star-studded film, "71 — In to the Fire," which opened to huge audiences in South Korea last week. The distributor plans to release the movie in the United States and Japan too, though no dates have been set.

The time was August 1950. North Korean troops, who launched the war by invading on June 25, had overrun Seoul and pushed southward almost to the tip of the Korean peninsula.

In the southeastern city of Pohang, Kim said, South Korean troops ordered the students to defend a school — home to a divisional rear command post — as the soldiers retreated to other areas.

When the students ran out of ammunition, they fought hand-to-hand. Kim almost lost sight in his right eye and some of his fingers from shrapnel wounds. Forty-eight of the students died.

Son Joo-hyung was left for dead after being shot in the back. He heard a North Korean soldier tell others not to waste any more ammunition on him. South Korean soldiers later found Son alive and brought him to a hospital.

"My heart aches every August because my fellow student soldiers were killed," he said after visiting a national cemetery in Seoul where his 48 comrades are buried.

Kim, who had lied about his age to join the volunteer corps, was saved by a sudden heavy downpour that forced the North Koreans to abort a second execution attempt. In the pitch-black darkness, he and another student escaped as the prisoners were being moved from one mountain to another. Kim later heard that most of the others were executed.

In the six decades since, South Korea has risen from the devastation of war to become a vibrant democracy and the world's 15th largest economy. The capital, Seoul, is home to glistening skyscrapers. Hyundais hum along its boulevards.

North Korea initially recovered faster than the South, but the economy has struggled since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of its communist ally, the Soviet Union. In recent years, reports of food shortages and famines have trickled out of the isolationist country.

Friday's anniversary — known as "6/25" for the day the war started — means little to many younger South Koreans, raised in an era of relative prosperity.

A survey released by the government this week found more than half of junior and senior high school students and 36.3 percent of adults do not know what year the war broke out. The telephone poll of 1,000 adults and 1,000 students has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

"I don't have any interest in the war and I don't feel threatened by the North," said university student Hong Seung-hwa.

That kind of attitude worries the former student volunteers and other veterans, especially at a time of rising tensions between the Koreas.

South Korea and the United States have blamed the North for a torpedo attack that sunk a South Korean warship on March 26, killing 46.

In response, the South has cut trade with the North and set up loudspeakers at the border — though so far refrained from using them to broadcast propaganda into the North.

North Korea, which denies responsibility for the sinking, has threatened to open fire on the loudspeakers and revived an old threat to turn Seoul into a "sea of flame."

Hyun and Kim, the two former student soldiers, caution against complacency. Hyun notes that the fighting in the Korean War ended with only a cease-fire. The two countries have never signed a peace treaty.

"A new war could break out at any time," he said.

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Online:

"71 — In to the Fire" website: http://remember-71.co.kr