This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Armistice Agreement that suspended the Korean War. Yet, full repatriation of ROK POWs remains unresolved. Considering these veterans detained in North Korea are now over 80 years old, their return is an urgent matter. The hostilities cannot be said to have ceased in the true sense until the all POWs held in forced custody are returned.
The fundamental cause behind their detention lies in the POWs policy of the North Korea. Unlike the U.N. Forces, North Korea did not announce the accurate number of POWs and instead enlisted a significant number of them into its military or forced them as residents in the North. In December 1951, they delivered the lists of ROK and U.N. POWs as just 11,559 ROK and U.N. POWs, of which around 7,000 were ROK nationals. This number is vastly different from the 65,368 announced by the North Korean Army nine months after the war, or the 108,257 announced by the North Korean Supreme Command in June 1951.
South Korea could not have the number of POWs and missing persons amid the continued retreats and as the MIAs included police officers, guerrillas and laborers. As such, the discussion will focus on the number 108,257, officially announced by the North Korean command. Based on this number, POWs to be accounted for by North Korea exceeded 90,000 excluding the returned prisoners and the escapees.
Although the ROK government has expressed its responsibility and strong will to negotiate the matter, with North Korea adhering to its original position that there are no more ROK POWs or abductees in North Korea, the resolution of the issue seems distant.
At this juncture, it is essential to remind our nation about the continued detention of the POWs. A good example would be the U.S., a nation that has experienced numerous wars including World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnamese War. It designated a day each year as National POW/MIA Recognition Day. The Association of Families of Abductees to North Korea during the Korean War has been holding the Walk along the Path of Abduction event since 2001 and the National Forget-me-not Badge Wearing Event since 2011.
For the un-repatriated POWs, the South Korean government needs to first demand the full return of those who are or had been incarcerated in prisons or political prisoner camps for actively resisting detention or attempting to escape. They are like the “unconverted long-term political prisoners” in South Korea. Besides those surviving today, the deceased POWs also need to be returned to their families after excavating their remains.
Another course of action worth considering is to provide humanitarian and financial aid to families of ROK POWs residing in North Korea. Most ROK POWs detained in North Korea settled and made families. If these detainees manage to escape from North Korea, their escape would only create more separation unless the whole family could cross the border together. Otherwise, the remaining family members would be subject to a series of disadvantages that include political prisoner camps, offender camps and deportation.
The North Korean government has the responsibility to account for the unreturned ROK POWs that its Supreme Command announced during wartime, except for the 8,000 who returned to ROK. Its government should also release the list of detainees, including the 13,094 POWs mentioned in the said USSR document, including those who died at the POW camps, and clarify whether those listed are alive. It also needs to provide an acceptable explanation about the suspicion that the POWs were transferred to forced labor camps in Siberia.
The Chinese government also needs to play its part. The Chinese forces helped form and cooperated with the “DPRK Army and Communist Chinese Forces for POWs Management Department.” Therefore, it is likely that the Chinese military had knowledge of the total number of prisoners and the number of those enlisted into the North Korean military. The Chinese government has the responsibility to account for at least the unreturned POWs of the 37,532 captured by its own forces. According to the Peng Dehuai’s letter sent to Mao Zedong on Jan. 19, 1951, there had been a plan to deploy 20,000 ROK soldiers to five North Korean corps.
It was the very legacy of historical wrongs that the issue of unreturned ROK POWs and those missing has yet to be settled even 60 years after the Armistice. Resolving the issue will contribute to forming a friendly relationship between the two Koreas. North Korea is the one that has the most accurate knowledge regarding the total number of POWs and those still surviving in North Korea.
By Cho Sung-hun
Cho Sung-hun, a Ph.D. and senior researcher at the Institute for Military History affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense, is the author of the recently published “Korean War and ROK POWs” and “The Demarcation Line and North-South Korea’s Conflict.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.