Good news: the United Nations Human Rights report on North Korea released on Feb. 17th confirms Pyongyang held back POWs it was supposed to release at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The report offers chilling evidence on the fate of unrepatriated South Korean (Republic of Korea/ROK) POWs and their families (see excerpt below).
Disgracefully, the UN gives short shrift to US and other allied members of the United Nations forces not returned at the end of the war (the US, South Koreans and more than a dozen other allies officially fought under the United Nations during the Korean War).
"The Commission heard allegations, relating to the fate of missing soldiers serving under the United Nations Command, particularly soldiers from the United States of America. According to the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War Prisoners of War and Persons Missing in Action, at the end of the Korean War during the exchanges of prisoners some United States soldiers, who were known to have been alive and in captivity with those who had been released, were not handed over by the DPRK authorities."
This section of the report garbles some information provided to it by the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, leaves out much more data provided to the UN (inc. sightings of alleged US POWs alive in North Korea decades after the war ended) and provides a non-sequitur quote from wartime Chinese commander regarding the issue of POWs.
The UN also apparently failed to do any real investigating of its own on non-ROK POWs, despite the fact that these missing men, including the Americans, were fighting in Korea under the United Nations flag, and that in earlier years the UN had demanded North Korea and China account for US and other POWs not returned after the war (these earlier demands ranged from United Nations Resolution 906, December 1954, to decades of requests by the UN Command in meetings with the North Koreans at the Korean DMZ -- including demands for the North Koreans to account for many missing Americans by name.)
The US government also deserves responsibility for this missed opportunity, having failed to ask the UN to investigate the potential detention and survival of US POWs (versus remains of those killed during the war) and having apparently failed to provide to the UN numerous intelligence reports on people who escaped from North Korea and claimed to have seen surviving US POWs after the war.
BTW, the report also notes evidence that a ROK POW fighting on the US side in the Vietnam War was taken to North Korea. A similar fate may have befallen some US POWs from Vietnam.
See the full UN report here:
See just some of the evidence on US POWs held by North Korea, China and the Soviet Union after the Korean War here: www.kpows.com
Full disclosure: UN mentions our book, but sadly not many of the details in it on the retention of US POWs after the war: "Washington Public Hearing, 31 October 2013, afternoon. Also, Submission to the Commission: Mark Sauter and John Zimmerlee, American Trophies: How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington’s “Cynical Attitude” (Lexington, Kentucky, 2013)."
"The Commission heard allegations, relating to the fate of missing soldiers serving under the United Nations Command, particularly soldiers from the United States of America. According to the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War Prisoners of War and Persons Missing in Action, at the end of the Korean War during the exchanges of prisoners some United States soldiers, who were known to have been alive and in captivity with those who had been released, were not handed over by the DPRK authorities. The Coalition alleges that they numbered more than 900 and that the total figure could be as high as 4,500. According to the transcript of a strategy meeting between the leaders of the Soviet, DPRK and Chinese forces, in September 1952, 8,000 American soldiers were held by Chinese forces, and approximately 4,000 foreigners were held by the DPRK. In the same meeting, the Commander of the Chinese forces Peng Denhuai acknowledged that “many of the foreign POWs have died in view of the difficult material conditions”. The families of US military men who did not return have sought information from the DPRK, China, Russia and the United States. However, many complain that they have not received sufficient cooperation. This has caused much anguish.
Entire Section on Unrepatriated POWs from the Korean War:
"1953: denial of repatriation to prisoners of war from the Korean War
1. At the time of the end of the Korean War, an estimated 82,000 members of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces were missing. Estimates of those taken as prisoners of war (POWs) and detained in the DPRK, or other countries allied to the DPRK, range between 50,000 and 70,000. According to the Soviet Union’s protocol of a meeting between Stalin, Kim Il-sung, Zhou Enlai and other senior officials, in September 1952 the DPRK held 35,000 ROK POWs. Kim Il-sung conveyed to Stalin that during the Armistice negotiations, the DPRK had only acknowledged to have taken about 7500 ROK soldiers as POWs. . According to Kim Il-sung, there were an additional 27,000 POWs, whose existence had not been revealed to the other side or the media. In the same meeting, Chinese General Peng Denhuai, who commanded the Chinese volunteer forces in the DPRK, indicated that since Chinese forces had entered the war, they had taken 40,000 POWs from the ROK.
2. Only 8,343 POWs were returned to the ROK in the immediate aftermath of the armistice between April 1953 and January 1954. On the basis of the discrepancy between this figure and in the numbers reported by Kim Il-sung and Peng Denhuai to Stalin, the Commission finds that at least 50,000 POWs from the ROK were not repatriated.
3. It is estimated that approximately 500 survivors among them are still being held in the DPRK. They have 400 POW family members who live in the ROK or elsewhere outside the DPRK.
4. International Humanitarian Law requires that prisoners of war must be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. In addition, the Armistice Agreement established express obligations as to when and through which mechanisms repatriation of POWs was to occur. By signing the Armistice Agreement, each State party agreed to:
[W]ithin sixty (60) days after this agreement becomes effective each side shall, without offering any hindrance, directly repatriate and hand over in groups all those prisoners of war in its custody who insist on repatriation to the side to which they belonged at the time of capture.
5. The Agreement detailed how the Red Cross would facilitate the repatriation efforts. The Committee for Repatriation of Prisoners of War would mediate any disputes as to the arrangements. The Committee for Repatriation of Prisoners of War was to be dissolved by the Military Armistice Committee upon completion of the programme of repatriation of prisoners of war. Despite these obligations under international law, thousands of ROK Prisoners of War were not repatriated, nor fairly offered the prospect of repatriation, by the DPRK.
6. It is clear from contemporary discussions between leaders from the DPRK, the Soviet Union and China, found in archived documents, that Kim Il-sung did not intend to return all the prisoners of war in his control. Rather, the DPRK had concealed the existence and whereabouts of the majority of ROK POWs by transferring them to KPA unit. Kim Il-sung reported to Stalin that the existence of the POWs thus transferred had been kept a secret from observers :
“According to the list which we have submitted we have taken a total of 12,000 men prisoner, of which 4,416 are foreigners and the rest South Koreans. Among the prisoners are 300 American pilots, of which more than 30 are officers. About 27,000 South Koreans have transferred to units of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army. These POWs have not been reported in the press.” (emphasis added)
7. The Commission received testimony from several South Korean POWs who were not repatriated but managed to escape the DPRK in their advanced years. By September 2012, 80 former Korean War POWs have returned to the ROK. According to the testimonies received, and reports on the issue, POWs captured in the early years of the war received re-education (ideological training) for several months before being enlisted in the KPA, being told that “they will now be participating in liberating ROK”.
8. A minority voluntarily joined the DPRK army. A former POW explained that as he joined the Korean People’s Army voluntarily working in a hospital for the injured, he was no longer treated as a POW and was afforded the same benefits as DPRK soldiers after the war. Another former POW told the Commission that those who joined the DPRK voluntarily after capture had their documentation papers were marked with “no 39”, and they were promised positions of responsibility when the South fell.
9. For the vast majority however, being (non-voluntarily) enlistees in the KPA meant being regrouped into “construction brigades”. These were composed entirely of POWs, who were forced to work in coal mines, factories and farm villages in the northern-most parts of the country. POWs were kept in camps at these forced labour sites during and after the war, until 1956. After the signing of the armistice, POWs who had been in the custody of the Chinese and Soviet forces were handed over to the DPRK and ended up in the same situation.
10. Each person in that position who gave evidence to the Commission told of how the opportunity to be repatriated was not fairly offered to them after the armistice in 1953.
• Mr Yoo Young-bok, who became a POW as a young man and only managed to escape after more than 50 years in the DPRK, testified that repatriation was never offered him. Instead, he and 600 other POWs were forced to work in a mine in North Pyongan Province:
“We were forced to work this mine and we said we are South Korean, POWs, why are we not being exchanged, why are we working in the mines, we asked these questions. And the North Koreans said they don’t know why and they just said we should do what we are told to do. … we thought this wouldn’t last long. We thought that relations between South and North Korea would improve. And because all the officers were alive, and because the South Korean government was there, because the president was there, we thought they would one day come looking for us trying to save us. So we decided to be patient and wait… but 5 decades have passed and nobody came looking for us and tried to save us. And North Korea just used us.”
11. Others spoke of being fearful of truthfully responding to questioning about their desire to be repatriated for fear of persecution. In one instance, a witness described how those who had answered affirmatively, indicating they wished to be repatriated, were shot. The majority however testified that they were not asked whether they wished to be repatriated. One witness explained that anyone who spoke up against the denial of repatriation was tied up in the camp.
12. In 1956-57, most of the POWs were released from the KPA and became civilians. Upon decommissioning, POWs were typicallysent to work in mines in remote provinces where they remained until their death.
• At the Seoul Public Hearing, former POW Mr Yoo Young-bok described how he believed he would be repatriated to South Korea after the armistice in July 1953, but instead in August 1953 he was sent to perform “incredibly difficult”, “back-breaking” forced labour in a mine in the DPRK. He told the Commission:
“I didn’t do anything wrong in North Korea. I served 47 years in North Korea. I did everything they asked me to do. I was in forced labour for decades. I did nothing wrong in North Korea... So before I die, it was my wish to return to my hometown where my family lived and I was going to testify about what North Korea did.”
13. The conditions in the mines were treacherous, and work conditions severe. Many workers enslaved in the mines died from accidents or diseases contracted in the mines caused by the dust. Incidents such as explosions tearing off limbs or flesh, collapses in the mines engulfing workers and deaths resulting from crushing or cutting by machinery are not uncommon. Conditions were so bad, and deaths and severe injuries so common, that according to one witness there was a saying “Don’t ever allow your daughter to marry a coal miner”, meaning a woman married to a coal miner is likely to become widowed and subsequently without a male’s income. The witness estimates that 20 per cent of miners did not reach the retirement age of 60.
• Mr Yoo Young-bok explained:
“Working in the mines, it’s very primitive. One of the mines I used to work in, we had to go as deep as 1,000 metres. And the air was bad, and the work itself was back-breaking. I think even the North Koreans say that that is the mine with the most intense workload. The way we worked there was very primitive – there were no tools.”
14. POWs who complained about their treatment or advocated for return to the ROK were sent to prisons, political prison camps or just disappeared. This resulted in a climate of fear within the construction brigades and mines which prevented workers from criticizing or protesting against working conditions, let alone organizing a strike.
• Mr Yoo Young-bok testified:
“They took us forcefully to mines. Of course some of my comrades or colleagues asked why they are not sending us back to our homes when we are POWs. So there were some who stood up. And they were just telling us that we should do what we were told to do. So there was a lot of peer pressure. And those who stood up against the North Koreans were publicly executed or were secretly transported. I learned later that they were taken to the political prisons. So most of us decided to keep quiet, because we knew, if we complained that we would only be victimized further.”
• Another former POW who managed to escape, also emphasized that they were not allowed to complain and got severely punished if they did. He recalled the case of a fellow POW, Mr Oh Sam Jun, who once said aloud that he wanted to be sent back to ROK. The man was charged with a political crime and sentenced to 15 years in a kyohwaso. Eventually he reappeared at the coal mine. Soon thereafter, he disappeared again forever.
15. POWs forced to work in the coal mines were under particularly strict surveillance by the MPS and SSD. Interrogations by these agencies (often involving torture) were commonplace for POWs, and every detail of their lives was known and recorded. Particular effort appears to have been made by the DPRK government to monitor and prevent escape of POWs and Korean War abductees. The Commission also heard testimonies of escape plans that were uncovered or thwarted at the last moment by the SSD as a result of their comprehensive surveillance.
16. A former POW described his brigade’s attempt at escape from a POW camp in North Pyongan Province. Several POWs were shot at the time of the incident, and the rest captured and tried. During pre-trial investigations, the witness was tortured with electricity and had his fingernails forcibly removed resulting in memory loss. At trial, 35 POWs were sentenced to death, and as the youngest in the brigade, the witness was sentenced to 20 years.
17. Thwarted escape attempts have also resulted in the deaths of family members due to the guilt by association policy employed in the DPRK. The Commission heard of the interrogation and subsequent death in a SSD detention facility in North Hamgyong Province of a woman after her brother’s plans to assist POWs in escaping was foiled. Another witness provided testimony about two people who were sent to political prison camp (kwanliso) No. 15 at Yodok because they were attempting to assist two elderly POWs cross into China in an effort to return to the ROK. A former POW told the Commission of his wife’s suicide after his escape from the DPRK, presumably in an attempt to save her son from a previous marriage from being tarnished by the guilt by association policy.
18. Like the Korean War abductees, as POWs and their families were categorized into the lowest rank of songbun, their descendants also suffered from the discrimination levied against the POWs. The Commission heard evidence from many POWs and descendants of POWs about the discrimination they faced. For example, children of POWs were denied access to higher education. They were directed to work in the same mines as their family and generally were forced to take the worst jobs in the mines.
• A POW who returned to the ROK after escaping from the DPRK decades after the war told the Commission how there was little opportunity for his children in the DPRK to flourish because of their songbun classification. So much so that his son once asked him “why [were] we even born?”
• The son of a POW working in the same mine as his father discovered, after befriending a security officer, that his documents were marked with the number 43, the number used for children of POWs.
19. The POWs who gave evidence to the Commission all spoke of seeking better opportunities for their children born in the DPRK as the primary reason for their decision to flee. Children and grandchildren are routinely denied access to education or employment opportunities. Daughters are further discriminated against as they find it much harder to marry a man of better songbun if discovered to be the child of a POW. Marriage options for daughters and granddaughters of POWs are thus limited to men of equally low songbun. This perpetuates the cycle of discrimination and increases the chances of being widowed at an early age, as men of the lowest level of songbun are forced to work in difficult and life threatening environments such as mines. The discrimination faced by descendants has, on occasion, led to the death by suicide of POWs who feel incapable of improving the lives of their children.
20. POWs who joined the KPA voluntarily after capture were treated somewhat better. However ultimately they too were subjected to the same restrictions on freedoms as the general population.
• One witness told the Commission that because he agreed to serve for the KPA in a hospital after being taken in 1951, he was never considered a POW and his family faced no discrimination. After the war, he was assigned to work in the Hol Dong Goldmine in Hwanghae Province without his consent, but his position did not require him to work underground.
21. After the war, families in the ROK of unreturned POWs held in the DPRK did not receive any information about the fate of their POW family members. Nor could they have contact with them. After the Inter-Korean Summit in June 2000, the DPRK and ROK agreed to address the problem of POWs along with separated families in the South-North Ministerial Meeting and the South-North Red Cross Meeting. In February 2006, at the 7th South-North Red Cross meeting, both sides agreed to include confirmation of life or death of “people whose identities are not known at the wartime and after” with that of separated families. These steps taken on both sides to establish contact between POWs in the North and their families in the South are welcome. However they have not resulted in contact with families for most of the POWs estimated to be alive in the North. They have permitted no more than a few mere hours of contact time for some families. From 2nd to 19th during the South-North Separated Family Reunions (2000-2013), 19 POWs were confirmed to be alive in the DPRK, 22 dead, and 105 could not be confirmed. Just 17 POWs were able to meet their ROK families in family reunions. In May 2013, an organization in the ROK called “Dream Makers for North Korea” established a centre for registration of POWs. The centre seeks to determine whether unreturned POWs are still alive.
22. Despite commitment to establish contact between POWs in the DPRK and their families in the ROK, the DPRK maintains that the issue of POWs was settled at the time of exchange of POWs in accordance with the Armistice Agreement. They contend that all POWs remaining in the DPRK are there voluntarily. The former POWs who provided evidence to the Commission all refuted the assertion by the DPRK that POWs remain in the country voluntarily.
• In Seoul, Mr Yoo Young-bok, elaborated:
“North Korea continues to maintain that there is not one South Korean POW in North Korea. If you have a home in South Korea, if you have parents and siblings in South Korea, why would anybody want to stay in North Korea, working in these incredibly difficult working conditions of the mine? This is just unreasonable. And still the North Koreans continue to maintain that the POWs in North Korea are there because they wanted to. Now these men have become 70, 80, and according to the North Korean press, there are about 500 of such POWs alive [in the DPRK at present]. The North Korean Government is not letting these 500 people to go to South Korea. And they are actually preventing them from escaping or leaving to South Korea. They catch them and punish them and execute them. And they also repress the children of the POWs – this is completely inhumane. The South Korean government as well as the international community should understand this and try to solve the human rights problem in North Korea.”
• Further, on the issue of permanently reuniting POWs of war in the DPRK with their families in the ROK, Mr Yoo pleaded:
“[A]ll the POWs (alive) in North Korea would be over 80 years old. … [T]hey have children; they have grandchildren in North Korea. If you just bring one old guy from North Korea to South Korea, how will they live in South Korea because they have their families back in the North? So if South Korean government wanted to resolve this issue, they should be able to bring the families of the POWs in North Korea together to South Korea.”
23. The Commission heard allegations, relating to the fate of missing soldiers serving under the United Nations Command, particularly soldiers from the United States of America. According to the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War Prisoners of War and Persons Missing in Action, at the end of the Korean War during the exchanges of prisoners some United States soldiers, who were known to have been alive and in captivity with those who had been released, were not handed over by the DPRK authorities. The Coalition alleges that they numbered more than 900 and that the total figure could be as high as 4,500. According to the transcript of a strategy meeting between the leaders of the Soviet, DPRK and Chinese forces, in September 1952, 8,000 American soldiers were held by Chinese forces, and approximately 4,000 foreigners were held by the DPRK. In the same meeting, the Commander of the Chinese forces Peng Denhuai acknowledged that “many of the foreign POWs have died in view of the difficult material conditions”. The families of US military men who did not return have sought information from the DPRK, China, Russia and the United States. However, many complain that they have not received sufficient cooperation. This has caused much anguish.
(c) 1955 -1992: Post-war abduction and enforced disappearance of Republic of Korea citizens
24. Abductions and enforced disappearances of persons from the Republic of Korea have continued long after the signing of the Korean War armistice. Approximately 3,835 ROK citizens have been arrested or abducted by the DPRK since the end of the Korean War, of which 3,319 people were returned to the ROK within one and a half years, and nine have subsequently escaped and returned the ROK. Five hundred and sixteen ROK citizens are believed to remain disappeared by the DPRK.