What Happened to American POWs Kept Behind After the Korean War

The remains of many Americans who died on the battlefield or in communist prison camps from 1950-3 rest in North Korea; their recovery and identification is a high priority, but this summary focuses on those who were last known or suspected to be alive in enemy hands and ever returned.

· During the war, US intelligence confirmed compelling evidence that American prisoners were secretly held outside North Korea in China, and reported strong indications some were also shipped to the Soviet Union. Most of this information was kept classified for decades -- some still is.

· More than 8,000 Americans did not come home from the war in 1953. Most were likely killed in battle or died in prison camps but their remains left in enemy-held territory. However, many Americans last seen alive in communist hands, along with the entire populations of some enemy prison camps reported during the war in China, did not return. They were all declared dead.

· Public interest in the fate of these Americans occasionally flared during the 1950s, including when China released some Americans secretly imprisoned as war criminals. In 1954, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force asked for CIA covert action to recover “An unknown but apparently substantial number of U. S. military personnel captured in the course of the Korean War (who) are still being held prisoners by the Communist Forces. These individuals will not necessarily be retained in North Korea or Manchuria, but may be held elsewhere within the Soviet orbit.” In 1957, a“Sense of the Congress” resolution stated that an accounting and/or return of U.S. POW/MIAs from Korea should be “a primary objective of the foreign policy of the United States.” But interest faded as the government failed to develop effective policy options, time passed and the Vietnam POW/MIA issue grew in importance.

· Decades later, questions about the fate of lost US prisoners from Korea resurfaced, but the Pentagon responded by simply denying to Congress, the media and POW/MIA family member that there was any evidence Americans had been kept in enemy hands and/or shipped from North Korea to China and the Soviet Union – this despite numerous classified documents in government files stating the exact opposite.

· While addition resources were finally placed on the Korean POW/MIA issue starting in the 1990s, and improvements in US relations with Russia, China and North Korea offered new avenues of investigation, the overwhelming US government focus was placed on the recovery and identification of men known to have been killed in the war. While an important focus, this was also the point of least resistance, as North Korea (and to a much lesser extent China) have always conceded that American remains are on their territory and have used this issue for negotiating purposes.

· The Pentagon consistently avoided any real focus on what happened to men known and/or strongly believed to have been alive in enemy hands – the very issue that had galvanized military leaders and the White House decades before (the one major exception was The U.S. -Russia Joint Commission on POWs/MIAs (USRJC), established in 1992, that included investigation of reports Americans had been sent from Korea to the Gulag; it developed substantial evidence, but was, in effect, shut down by Moscow some years ago and has been effectively moribund under the Obama Administration.)

· In recent years more and more information about Americans held behind has been revealed – declassified US documents, including sightings of American prisoners alive in North Korean, Chinese and Soviet prisons; statements by North Korean officials alluding to surviving American prisoners; sightings of alleged surviving Americans by defectors from North Korea; the recovery of allied South Korean POWs, also declared dead after the war, but who escaped decades later from North Korean camps; and two UA Army Cold War defectors to North Korea who surfaced alive having survived in that country for decades, suggesting the motive and ability of Pyongyang to retain Americans.

· The Chinese government finally reversed decades of denials to admit it had secretly taken a U.S. POW from North Korea to China; but it now claims Army Sgt. Richard Desautels died of “mental ill(ness)” and his body has been lost (in the very place US wartime intelligence reported a camp from which Americans did not return, and from where some were allegedly shipped to the Soviet Union). Beijing has not provided information on scores of other missing Americans in Desautel’s category http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25272607/ns/world_news-asia_pacific/t/china-admits-taking-us-pow-korea/

o This Chinese admission would have been international news and a potential trigger for renewed fighting had it been revealed when it allegedly occurred in 1953. However, the Pentagon never even publicly announced the Chinese admission when it was received in 2003. It did not become public until 2008 and the Pentagon has since made no substantial effort to follow up on the implications of this seminal case.

· As discussed, the Russian government has in effect shut down the US/Russian POW commission with limited if any real high-level pushback from the US. The Pentagon was able in 2008 to establish an agreement with Beijing to review certain POW files; in the years since, Chinese support has been limited and it has failed to produce the most important records it is known to have kept.

· The US government has failed to take aggressive follow up action not only on China’s Desautels revelation and the other new information discussed above, but also multiple reports of alleged surviving American prisoners by the increasing number of North Korean defectors.

· No integrated, truly high-priority US government program exists to determine what really happened to the men last reported alive in communist hands in 1953. Current and former government analysts are convinced that China and Russia are refusing to provide key evidence on the fate of these men and no real interchange is occurring with North Korea on the issue. The Pentagon’s overwhelming focus is recovering the remains of men killed during the war.

Detail (the following account is a summary of political and bureaucratic considerations based on substantial supporting documentation, available upon request. It is not designed to be a summary of evidence concerning the fates of missing American prisoners.)

The Korean War (June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953) was fought between the United Nations, represented predominantly by the United States and Republic of Korea (South Korea), and the communist side, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and People’s Republic of China (communist China), with substantial logistical, intelligence and air combat support from the Soviet Union and support from other Soviet-bloc nations.

U.S. PWs: In North Korea and Reportedly Moved Out

Communist POW camps in North Korea were initially run by the North Koreans and then taken over in large part by the Chinese; the Soviets also remained involved with the POWs throughout the conflict, in over-all charge of the system according to several intelligence reports. American officials tracked those captured by the communists via radio broadcasts made from POW camps, letters and petitions, intelligence reports and eyewitness accounts from fellow troops who saw their colleagues captured. Numerous U.S. intelligence reports (most kept classified for decades after the war) also indicated U.S. POWs were being moved from North Korea into camps in China, where Chinese and Soviet forces had safe havens, and that some were also being shipped to the Soviet Union. In 1952, according to documents released decades later, Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai discussed retaining 20 percent of the U.N. prisoners.[i][i] Intelligence reports during and after the war reported that hundreds of Americans had been held in Chinese and Soviet camps from which no POW ever returned. (In June 2008, The Pentagon, which had previously denied the very existence of much of this wartime evidence, stated:“We have also been unable to verify definitively the reports we have received regarding possible transfers or the ultimate fate of any possible candidates for transfer to other countries such as the former Soviet Union.”)

POW Issue Extends War

The final period of the Korean War was fought largely over the POW issue. Many Korean and Chinese prisoners captured by the U.S. had been forced to fight for the communists and did not want to be sent back, instead preferring to remain in South Korea or be sent to Taiwan. The communist side wanted them all returned, fearing they would enlisted in anti-communist activities, and demanded an “all-for-all” exchange. The U.N. side insisted that prisoners should have the right to decide where they wanted to go, a position that ultimately triumphed. However, when the war ended in an armistice (there is no peace treaty to this day) and the prisoners were exchanged, both sides claimed the other had withheld POWs. (at least 21 Americans, those admitted publicly by the enemy, chose to remain in communist hands.)

Many POWs from Both Sides Not Returned

Many U.S. officials – from senior commanders to intelligence analysts -- believed U.S. prisoners had been held back for their technical skills, espionage purposes or use as political bargaining chips. “We learned the Chinese and North Koreans…had refused to return all the prisoners they captured. Why the Reds refused to return all our captured personnel we could only guess. I think one reason was that they wanted to hold the prisoners as hostages for future bargaining with us,” said General Mark Clark, commander of U.N. forces. Especially frustrating were the cases of Americans known by name to have been held by the communists but never returned. In September 1953, the U.N. demanded an accounting for 3,404 troops, including 944 Americans (a list later reduced by subsequent intelligence and graves registration work to 389) believed to have been in communist hands but never returned. According to the U.N., these men: “(1) Spoke or were referred to in broadcasts by your radio stations. (2) Were listed by you as being captives. (3) Wrote letters from your camps. (4) Were seen in your prisons.” Despite pressure from the U.N., the communists refused to provide any information on most of these men. The scant data provided was in most cases clearly bogus – in 1956, the communists stated Sgt. Desautels (see below) had “escaped.” They made the same claim about Capt. Harry Moreland, a double amputee when he was last seen in communist captivity. Then there were the many Americans who had simply disappeared. While intelligence analysts recognized that many Americans had died in POW camps and been killed on the battlefield but never recovered, there were no answers about the fate of men reported in confirmed prison camps in China from which no American ever returned.

In late 1954, the UN and communist sides conducted “Operation Glory,” returning the remains of many men left on either side of the dividing line. Further graves registration work continued in South Korea and at US facilities. But large numbers of Americans (along with South Koreans and other allies) remained unaccounted for.

US Government Believes Many Americans Kept Alive

Meantime, in documents mostly kept classified for decades, US officials concluded many American prisoners remained alive in communist captivity. In March 1954, Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining dispatched a memo (kept secret until 2004; it is unclear if this memo has been reported publicly prior to this document) to the director of the CIA entitled “U. S. Prisoners of War Remaining in Communist Custody After Termination of Exchange of Prisoners Under Terms of Korean Armistice Agreement.” The General reported: “An unknown but apparently substantial number of U. S. military personnel captured in the course of the Korean War are still being held prisoners by the Communist Forces. These individuals will not necessarily be retained in North Korea or Manchuria, but may be held elsewhere within the Soviet orbit. …While it is possible that the release of some or all of these prisoners of war may eventually be effected through diplomatic negotiations, the fact that to this day apparently large numbers of German and Japanese prisoners of war from World War II are still in custody must be accepted as a Communist pattern. Today, for the first time, U. S. personnel in any quantity are coming into contact with this pattern. It is a fundamental obligation of the U. S. Government to vigorously pursue every authorized means to recover its fighting men being held hostage by anyone under any circumstances whatsoever.” The Air Force asked the CIA for “clandestine and covert action to locate, identify, and recover” those American prisoners.

Government Gives Up on Recovering Most of the Missing

Unfortunately, by 1955 the U.S. government, at least in private, had concluded that existing policy options would prove unable to force a full accounting. The Chinese had revealed they had been holding secretly a small group of Korean War aviators as “war criminals.” They, and two CIA officers captured in China, were eventually released. But as for a full accounting, a (then) classified Pentagon memo concluded: “The problem becomes almost a philosophical one. If we are ‘at war,’ cold, hot or otherwise, casualties and losses must be expected and perhaps we must learn to live with this sort of thing. If we are in for fifty years of peripheral ‘fire fights’ we may be forced to adopt a rather cynical attitude on this (the POWs) for the political reasons.”[ii][ii] Intelligence efforts wound down during the mid-and-late 1950s and much of the information on missing Americans was sent to the vaults, where it remained classified into the 1990s and beyond.

However, for the public at least, Korean War POW/MIAs remained a major issue. In 1957, a “Sense of the Congress”resolution stated that an accounting and/or return of U.S. POW/MIAs from Korea should be “a primary objective of the foreign policy of the United States.” The issue gradually receded, especially as concern about U.S. prisoners in Southeast Asia moved to the fore.

Flagrant Falsehoods from Pentagon in 1990s

From time-to-time, the issue received renewed attention, often as part of increased action by the families of Americans missing from the Vietnam War. The author of this blog began reporting on the Korean POW issue in 1989 (and co-authored a book including the subject in 1992). Other authors and activists who had long researched the POW issue also gained greater attention. The reaction of the US government was, in general, total denial. During a Congressional hearing in June 1990, the then-lead US agency for POW/MIA issues, the DIA, was represented by deputy director Rear Admiral Ronald Marryott. He provided a written statement that “there are no intelligence indicators that U.S. personnel from the Korean conflict were not returned to U.S. control at the end of the war.” He went on to state that the Soviet Union and China had also been under intense US intelligence scrutiny for many decades. “I believe this scrutiny would have likewise revealed at least a hint of American prisoners held in either country had they been taken there. Again, no such evidence has ever surfaced,” he stated. He was in sync with the Chinese government, which in 1992 stated: “The Chinese side settled the issue of American prisoners of the Korean War long ago…None of the POWs under Chinese control was transferred to a third country or to the Chinese territory.”

Pentagon public affairs officers repeated this line to the media, even as contradictory documents began to be declassified.

Example of Pentagon Public Statement Versus Classified Document

“We don’t have any evidence that anyone was transferred from Korea to the Soviet Union.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Capt. Susan Strednansky, June 1992

“These reports (Of US POWs being transported from Korea to the Soviet Union) came in great volume through the earlier months of the war.”

Classified Pentagon Report, Feb 1953

Vietnam POW Issue Generates New Attention on Korea

More importantly, increased interest in the Vietnam POW/MIA issue, plus the collapse of the Soviet Union, began driving substantial interest in the overall POW issue. In 1991 the Minority Staff of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations issued a POW/MIA report highlighting the Korean War issues. Korea was also considered by the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs from 1991-3. in the early 1990s, (then) Senator Bob Smith pushed for answers and was told by the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister: "The Chinese manned the American POW camps in Korea and the Chinese guards took them across the border into China during and at the end of the war;" in 1993, Pentagon investigators concluded U.S. prisoners were shipped from North Korea to the Soviet Union; in 1996, a Pentagon analyst reported “there are too many live sighting reports…to dismiss that there are no American POWs in North Korea” ;[iii][iii] and in 1997 the Associated Press reported a North Korean official had acknowledged “survivors of the war” in his country but the Clinton Administration declined to follow up.[iv][iv] The escape of ROK (South Korean) POWs, America’s brothers-in-arms during the Korean War, from the North in recent years has also raised the issue. As with the Americans, U.S. intelligence officials believed many ROK troops had been held back, yet they too were declared dead. But as security levels in North Korea have deteriorated in recent years, these men have started to escape and return to their homeland very much alive and South Korea now estimates as many as 500 may still be imprisoned in North Korea.

US Government Focuses Only on Remains

Despite all this, in recent years the Pentagon and State Department have downplayed the Korean POW/MIA issue, especially regarding Americans captured alive but never returned. Instead they have focused the issue on U.S. remains in North Korea, launching limited trips from 1996-2005 to recover remains -- trips for which the North Koreans have reportedly received substantial payment. Reports of Americans still alive in North Korea have been classified, “analyzed” for years, and eventually dismissed because they “could not be corroborated” or the witness’ story was inconsistent. These dead-ends occur in many cases because there is no way for U.S. investigators to follow up effectively without North Korean cooperation. For example, North Korean escapees have told the author they have the names of officials and prisoners who have POW information, but as far as the author can tell, the U.S. government cannot or will not follow up in North Korea.

The Bush Administration also elected not to make POW/MIA accounting an issue in the “Six-Party Talks” which led to concessions to North Korea. In contrast, Japan did focus its efforts on uncovering the truth about its citizens believed to have been abducted by North Korea for intelligence purposes. After years of stonewalling, starting in 2002 North Korea admitted it had indeed abducted Japanese citizens and eventually returned five of them. Japan continues to press for additional information. Tragically, this has created a situation in which the U.S. government has made accounting for Japanese civilians a higher priority than resolving the fates of American GIs. In 2008 President Bush announced he was dropping North Korea from “Trading with the Enemy” status and moving to remove Pyongyang from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The President declared: “The other thing I want to assure our friends in Japan is that this process will not leave behind -- leave them behind on the abduction issue. The United States takes the abduction issue very seriously. We expect the North Koreans to solve this issue in a positive way for the Japanese…And it is important for the Japanese people to know that the United States will not abandon our strong ally and friend when it comes to helping resolve that issue.” The President made no mention of the U.S. POW/MIAs.

Key 2008 Breakthrough Ignored by US Government

After years of pressure from POW/MIA family groups to demand help from China on key Korean War cases, especially those of men such as Sgt. Richard Desautels who were known to be alive in Chinese hands but never returned, the government asked the question and received an unexpected answer. But even when the Chinese suddenly reversed decades of denials, DPMO, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA office, took no significant action. In 2008, after the author of this blog saw documents given to an elderly member of the Desautels family (five years before) and recognized their significance, the Pentagon was forced to admit that in 2003 Beijing had dropped decades of stone-walling on this bellwether POW case. As the Associated Press reported: “After decades of denials, the Chinese have acknowledged burying an American prisoner of war in China, telling the U.S. that a teenage soldier captured in the Korean War died a week after he ‘became mentally ill,’ according to documents provided to The Associated Press. China had long insisted that all POW questions were answered at the conclusion of the war in 1953 and that no Americans were moved to Chinese territory from North Korea. The little-known case of Army Sgt. Richard G. Desautels, of Shoreham, Vt., opens another chapter in this story and raises the possibility that new details concerning the fate of other POWs may eventually surface. Chinese authorities gave Pentagon officials intriguing new details about Desautels in a March 2003 meeting in Beijing, saying they had found ‘a complete record of 9-10 pages’ in classified archives.”

2012: Fate of Lost Korean War Prisoners Remains on the Back Burner

Rather than vigorously following up on China’s admissions about Desautels – from demanding the file about him to asking about other Americans secretly removed from North Korea, DPMO has handled the issue as a routine, low-level remains case. As discussed above, although China agreed to share POW records with DPMO in 2008, there is no evidence China has released the file it admitted having on Desautels. The over-all results of the document releases have been disappointing at best. The Chinese prison system was known for its record keeping, but the most critical documents have not been released and it’s unclear if DPMO is even pressing for them.

At least report, the Pentagon had obtained no substantial additional information regarding Desautels and those in his category in the nine years since the Chinese admission. A recent Pentagon document indicates its plan is to ask China for permission to dig for Desautel’s body. It is as if he were an American killed in front of his buddies during the war and the Chinese are now being asked for access to the trench line.

DPMO claims its current policy is: “Resolution of the Live Prisoner Issue. Finding live Americans is the highest priority of our accounting process. DPMO, with the full support of the U.S. intelligence community, aggressively investigates all credible reports and sightings of alleged American survivors of the Korean War living in North Korea. Since 1995, more than 20,000 defectors from North Korea have been screened for information concerning Americans possibly living in the North. To date, this effort has produced no useful information concerning live Americans. Most reports of live Americans in North Korea pertain to six known U.S. defectors.”

It is the definition of “useful information” that is most important. Our observation of DPMO and its predecessor office for more than 20 years, and review of specific cases involving defector and other information, suggest that DPMO will likely never consider information on US POWs in Korea, China or Russia “useful” unless it is undeniable and/or so explosive and embarrassing that the government is forced to act by the threat of public exposure. An example is the case of Oh Young Nam. This former North Korean secret police official says he repeatedly saw 20-30 elderly Caucasians and blacks in a highly-secure area north of Pyongyang from 1982 to 1993. Mr. Oh says his comrades told him the men were American POWs. “I asked: ‘Who are those people?’ I was told that they were American POWs. I was surprised that there were still American POWs alive. They all seemed to have families and their wives were North Korean,” Mr. Oh stated. In June 2008, DPMO claimed this was “second-hand information” (because the Caucasians and blacks did not personally tell him they were POWs) and says this sighting “could not be corroborated.” Mr. Oh continues to assert that he saw American POWs, provided a video statement with the help of the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), and is willing to help follow up with other information he believes could corroborate his account. In an additional case, the author witnessed a DPMO Korean expert actually avoiding a defector who claimed to have seen an American POW alive in recent years. To be fair, the US government has limited access to North Korea and receives little real cooperation from Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow concerning “lost prisoners.” Based on the data above and more sensitive information, the author is convinced that DPMO and other US agencies, like many bureaucracies, actively avoid focusing on questions that could create problems they cannot solve. Sadly, the fate of Americans last known alive in communist hands at the end of the Korean War fits this category.

DPMO states it expects to resume digging for remains in North Korea when security conditions allow.