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[Herald interview] Former ambassador recalls harrowing escape from Mogadishu in 1991

Kang Shin-sung shares experience of joining North Koreans in flight during Somalia's civil war, frustrations with movie

Former Ambassador to Somalia Kang Shin-sung poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
Former Ambassador to Somalia Kang Shin-sung poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
The blockbuster film “Escape From Mogadishu,” released July 28, has drawn more than 1.85 million theatergoers, becoming the biggest box office hit so far in a year that is seeing many of the films originally set for release last year finally make it to screens despite the continued pandemic.

The harrowing escape scene and the exotic location -- the film was shot in Morocco for three months last year before the pandemic halted virtually all international travel -- are certainly riveting.

It is the improbable story of a group of stranded South Korean and North Korean diplomats escaping the civil war-torn Somalia together, however, that grips the people’s imagination. There have been many films depicting the two Koreas in settings as varied as a submarine, a volcanic eruption, an international table tennis match and the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone, to name just a few. What sets “Escape From Mogadishu” apart is that it is based on the real-life story of Kang Shin-sung, a South Korean career diplomat.

Somalia was Kang’s first posting as an ambassador. In fact, it was Kang who opened the South Korean Embassy in Mogadishu with the goal of gathering support for South Korea’s membership in the UN.

When Kang arrived in Mogadishu on Christmas Eve 1987, the East African state was already mired in instability. There had been tribal wars for four to five years before the all-out civil war in January 1991, explained Kang in an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday. “On Dec. 30, 1990, the rebel forces entered the capital,” said Kang.

On Jan. 4, 1991, four armed robbers entered the South Korean ambassador’s residence and were eventually repelled by the three or four Somali soldiers Kang had secured to guard the residence. “Armed robbers were the most frightening,” Kang said. “The government forces were unable to enforce public order.”

After a failed attempt to leave Mogadishu on Jan. 7, the South Korean diplomats headed once again to the airport on Jan. 9.

However, there had been a miscommunication. “It was not our plane. It was a plane for the Italian Embassy,” Kang said. At the airport, Kang saw the North Korean Embassy staff, including Ambassador Kim Ryong-su, and their families looking desolate.

When Kang asked if they were going back to their residence, one of the North Koreans told him, “We will die if we go back.” Armed robbers had raided the residence eight times already, Kang was told. Kang told them they would die if they stayed at the airport. “‘Let’s go to our place. We have four soldiers,’ I offered,” Kang said.

After hesitating for a moment, the North Korean ambassador asked for a car to be sent to them in an hour and a half.

Photos from Ambassdor Kang Shin-sung’s time serving in Somalia before the civil war Courtesy of Kang Shin-sung
Photos from Ambassdor Kang Shin-sung’s time serving in Somalia before the civil war Courtesy of Kang Shin-sung
The North Koreans came with rice that they had dug underground before leaving their residence as well as some vegetables and other foodstuffs. The wives from both sides prepared dinner. “It felt like a family,” Kang said. “We tried to overcome our difficulties, united like a family,” said Kang. “That transcended ideologies, states.”

Thus began the four days living with the “other side” -- seven South Koreans and a group of 14 North Koreans, which included four children.

This is one of the points at which the film differs from what really happened in 1991, according to Kang. “Escape From Mogadishu” has North Koreans coming to the South Korean ambassador’s residence and the South Korean ambassador taking them in only after being told by an agent from the Agency for National Security Planning that this could be a bonanza. “There was no NSP agent at our embassy,” Kang said. Kang also wanted the public to know that it was the South Korean ambassador who offered North Koreans help first.

What did they talk about as they shared their first meal together?

There was no talk immediately after arrival. “After all, we used to have a bickering relationship and now they found themselves in a situation where they were indebted to us,” Kang said. “They merely answered our questions,” Kang said.

After dinner, the two sides began discussions on their next course of action. “The North Koreans had no opinion. I told them I would go to the Italian Embassy to try to get a rescue plane,” Kang said.

On Jan. 10, Kang went to the Italian Embassy, where Ambassador Mario Sica, after a lengthy communication with his home office in Italy, said a Red Cross plane would be arriving on Jan. 12, but that there would not be enough seats as there were 300 Italians waiting to be airlifted out of Mogadishu.

Sica suggested taking just the seven South Koreans on the plane, according to Kang. Kang firmly declined the suggestion. Kang recalled telling Sica, “That is not possible. How could I do such a thing?”

Sica called his home office once again, and two hours later he told Kang that military cargo planes would be joining the Red Cross plane.

The flight now arranged, Kang returned to his residence and the seven South Koreans and 14 North Koreans drove to the Italian Embassy in different cars, dodging the bullets from street battles. On the way, a North Korean diplomat driving the car behind Kang’s was shot by government forces who mistook them for armed rebels.

When the cars arrived in front of the Italian Embassy gate, Kang went over to the car that had been shot at. “His face was white, he had a nosebleed and his body had fallen backwards,” Kang said. The guards did not open the gate immediately, so Kang grabbed a South Korean flag and jumped up and down frantically waving it. “A North Korean diplomat, who was taller, grabbed the flag from me and started waving it,” Kang said.

“I was moved. Together, we waved the flag for quite some time,” Kang said. “It was a scene where diplomats (from the South and the North) came together under Taegeukgi,” Kang said. The actual scene differs from the scene in the movie, where they are seen waving a white flag.

Once inside, an Italian nurse looked at the wounded man and tried to treat him. But he had already died, the bullet having pierced his heart. The body was put inside a storage room that held cleaning equipment.

The body was buried in the embassy garden. “Following the Korean ‘pungsu’ practice, we laid his head toward home, the Korean Peninsula,” Kang said. A small mound was created and a wooden marker with the diplomat’s name was placed. The South Korean diplomats did all of this by themselves because the North Koreans were too stunned to do anything, according to Kang. “The North Koreans bowed in front of the grave. I did so behind them,” Kang said.

The group stayed at a covered space just outside the main door to the Italian ambassador’s residence for two days. Sica asked for a two-hour cease-fire between the rebels and the government army on Jan. 12 so that the evacuees could safely reach the airport. Six South Koreans -- one had elected to stay on in Mogadishu -- and 13 North Koreans, along with some 300 Italians escaped the city on a Red Cross plane and two Italian military cargo planes.

Upon landing in Mombasa, Kenya, the North Korean ambassador said, “Let’s split here,” Kang recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s go together. Stay at the hotel,’ but he was resolute in his refusal,” Kang said. “It dawned on me that if North Korea finds out that they (the North Korean diplomats) had received South Korean assistance, they may be punished,” Kang said. “That was our last (interaction),” he said.

Asked for his thoughts on the film, which is based on his 2006 novel “Escape,” a fictionalized account of the events of 1991, Kang said, “I am frustrated.

“The film omitted how South Korea helped North Korea on humanitarian grounds,” Kang said, “This was what was most important.”

By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)
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