‘My Way’ Is Based On the Story of Yang Kyoungjong, But Did He Actually Exist?

Photo Credit: Wolf / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Wolf / MovieStillsDB

My Way (2011) follows the story of a Korean soldier who fights for the Soviet Union, Japan and Germany during World War II. The South Korean film isn’t entirely a work of fiction, either. It’s based on the story of Yang Kyoungjong, who reportedly did just that. The only catch is that while some historians believe he was real, many disagree.

My Way (2011)

Jang Dong-gun and Joe Odagiri as Kim Jun-shik and Tatsuo Hasegawa in 'My Way'
My Way, 2011. (Photo Credit: Wolf / MovieStillsDB / Edited via Canva)

Released in December 2011, My Way (Mai Wei, in Korean) was, at the time, the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of $24 million USD. While based on the story of Yang Kyoungjong, the main character is named Kim Jun-shik, who has a passion for running. This trait carries over into adulthood and is what eventually gets Jun-shik drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army.

While fighting overseas, the soldier is taken as a Soviet prisoner of war (POW). As the Red Army’s numbers dwindle, they begin to conscript prisoners and Jun-shik is forced to fight for who was once the enemy. While with the Red Army, he’s captured by the Germans and inducted into their ranks.

The film may have been a box office flop upon its release, but the real-life story behind it is incredibly intriguing.

When does Yang Kyoungjong enter history?

Jang Dong-gun as Kim Jun-shik in 'My Way'
My Way, 2011. (Photo Credit: Wolf / MovieStillsDB)

My Way‘s Kim Jun-shik is based on a Korean man called Yang Kyoungjong. Very little is known about him prior to the Second World War, meaning that, essentially, everything included in the film up until that point is a work of fiction.

It’s unclear how Kyoungjong’s story was first discovered. However, it was legitimized by renowned military historian Antony Beevor in his book, The Second World War, and elaborated upon in Steven Zaloga’s work, The Devil’s Garden: Rommel’s Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Supposedly, Kyoungjong first appears in the historical record during D-Day. During the Allied invasion of Normandy, a young soldier surrendered to a group of US paratroopers. He wore a German uniform, but they assumed he was Japanese based on his appearance. Really, he was Korean.

This was Kyoungjong, who’d been forced into the Japanese Kwantung Army in 1938, at the age of 18. At the time, Korea was under the rule of Japan. How, exactly, did he end up fighting for the Germans?

Yang Kyoungjong’s World War II service

Japanese soldiers running across a hill
Japan’s Kwantung Army rushing to the frontlines, 1938. (Photo Credit: Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Both Antony Beevor and Steven Zaloga said the Soviets captured Yang Kyoungjong following the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. He spent some time as a POW and was eventually drafted into the Red Army in 1942.

In 1943, he was, again, taken prisoner, this time by the Germans at the Third Battle of Kharkov. Like the Soviets, the Germans drafted him into their army. He was sent to France to help defend the Atlantic Wall, near where the Americans would storm Utah Beach.

Lt. Robert Brewer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, reportedly captured four Japanese soldiers in German uniform at Utah Beach, leading many to believe Kyoungjong was one of them. The Americans passed him over to the British, who took him to a POW camp in England.

He was allegedly sent to a prison camp in the United States and following his release refused to talk about his war story. He died in Illinois in the latter part of the 20th century.

Is this wartime story too good to be true?

Unknown Japanese soldier standing with two German soldiers
This photo of a Japanese soldier in German uniform is often believed to be Yang Kyoungjong. However, there is no proof it’s actually him. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Although a handful of prestigious historians have discussed Yang Kyoungjong’s story, there’s no legitimate evidence he ever existed. One photo taken on D-Day of a Japanese soldier in German attire is commonly said to be him, but there’s no proof it actually was. It could very well have been anyone. In fact, some think Kyoungjong’s story was created to explain this image.

This isn’t to say the story is implausible, as there were Asian POWs who served in the Red Army and Wehrmacht. As compelling as the story is – a Korean man forced to fight for Japan, the Soviet Union and Germany – there’s nothing to prove it happened.

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Even when historians discuss Kyoungjong, they themselves can provide little to no sources showing where the information came from. Indeed, according to Martin K.A. Morgan, “Yang Kyoungjong is a person who never existed because he certainly never left us any proof that he ever existed.”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.