Hardly Known, Not Yet Forgotten, South Korean POWs Tell Their Story

2007-01-25
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Jeon Yong-Il (L), who was taken as a war prisoner by North Korea during the Korean War, appears with Heo Pyeong-Hwan (R), Division commander of South Korea's Army 6th Infantry. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

SEOUL—Thousands of South Koreans taken prisoner by the North during the Korean War (1950-53) were sent to do hard labor and were refused the chance to be repatriated under international law.

Those who survived the working conditions found they were still subjected to contempt and discrimination, 50 years after the end of the war.

“One day I found it rather strange that I could not hear the sound of airplanes overhead. Later, I found out the reason the skies had fallen silent: the war was over,” POW Cho Chang-Ho told RFA’s Korean service shortly before his death.

While 80,000 South Koreans were missing-in-action during the Korean War, only 8,000 POWs were repatriated by North Korea to the South. In contrast, 76,000 North Korean POWs were repatriated by South Korea.

Never informed

One day, my daughter came crying to me, saying that she could not get involved with a man, because she was the child of a South Korean POW. How could words describe the pain of a father?

Former POWs who managed to escape back to South Korea said that they were simply not informed that a prisoner exchange was taking place, or even that the war was over.

“At the time, I was in Manpo Prison, and I had no idea at all about the armistice or prisoner exchange,” Cho said.

Another former POW, Kim Chang Seok, said: “I was captured on July 4, 1953, while on a covert mission. I didn’t know about the prisoner exchange.”

“After coming to South Korea, I examined relevant documents and realized that, after the end of the war, a prisoner exchange had been conducted for a couple of months. South Korean POWs in the North had no idea about the exchange when it happened. Had we known about the prisoner swap at the time, we would have done something about it,” Kim told a 34-episode RFA radio documentary series titled POW Story.

The DPRK has no one to be exchanged for except those who deserted the disgraceful army and joined the people’s army to fight the enemy in the past Korean War and those who came over to the North of their own accord, cursing the South Korean society.

Article 118 of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which came into force on Oct. 21 1950, states that: “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.”

But thousands of South Koreans were held by the other side. Their true number may never be known. North Korea still denies their existence, and many died from disease, starvation, or in industrial accidents.

Kim Kyu Hwan, a POW repatriated to the South in 2003 after performing forced labor in the Aogi mine, testified that he had worked there for 35 years.

“In North Hamgyong Province, because the coal deposit is relatively recent, the coal layers are weak, and if one digs deep, a lot of pressure develops. If the pressure is too high, the coal layers collapse, and mortal danger ensues,” said Kim, whose real name has been changed at his request.

“Six hundred and seventy South Korean POWs were confined to hard labor at the Aogi coal mine in 1953, and 30 more arrived later. Out of 700 POWs, there are no more than 20 left now. Over the past five decades, many have died in working accidents, and others have died of old age,” Kim said.

South Korean POWs have formally received citizenship and married North Korean women, establishing families in the North. But they have continued to be labeled as “reactionaries during the war of liberation,” and are the most oppressed social category in North Korea, according to defectors whose relatives were POWs.

For example, they lacked the freedom to choose their place of work or residence, and were barred from membership in the North Korean Workers’ Party.

Gruelling work

Lee Kwang Dok, nephew of Lee Ki Choon, a former POW repatriated in 2004, said his uncle was an educated man, and was sent to work in the Chungjin shipyards instead of a coal mine. Lee said his uncle lived under constant surveillance and perpetual suspicion that he might try to escape to the South Korean shore. He worked hard and lived without having any hope of ever being granted a promotion.

Oh Jeong Hwan, a POW repatriated to the South in 2000, said his sons couldn’t join the North Korean army, but were forced to follow in the footsteps of their father and work in a coal mine instead.

In North Hamgyong Province, because the coal deposit is relatively recent, the coal layers are weak, and if one digs deep, a lot of pressure develops. If the pressure is too high, the coal layers collapse, and mortal danger ensues.

“One day, my daughter came crying to me, saying that she could not get involved with a man, because she was the child of a South Korean POW. How could words describe the pain of a father?” said Oh, whose name has also been changed.

“I had lived my life as a broken man since my youth, because I was a POW, and then my offspring had to dwell on this agony again, how could I not be embittered?”

POWs were not only used as forced labor. While the war was still under way, they were often given North Korean uniforms and redeployed as soldiers to fight the other side, defectors said. Some were lucky enough to be taken prisoner by the South once more, and a policy of voluntary repatriation by the South Korean and US forces after the Armistice meant that they could remain there.

Choi Hee Kyung, daughter of a deceased South Korean POW, said she decided to flee North Korea because of the perpetual discrimination and contempt she faced there.

“North Korea never treated us as human beings. Since they could not just slaughter us, they chose to use us as sheer tools devoid of any humanity. We had no future and no freedom,” Choi said.

“We couldn’t travel, study, or go to university, we couldn’t live like human beings. Ever since I was born, until I fled North Korea, all I felt was grievance and frustration over the North Korean government’s attitude toward me, and all I wanted to do was to live like a human being,” she said.

Meanwhile, the remaining POWs are now into their 70s or 80s, with little time left to fulfill their lifelong dream of returning home.

Bae Young-Sook, the daughter of a deceased former POW, fulfilled her father’s last wish to be buried in his hometown, and defected to South Korea carrying the urn containing her father’s ashes.

“My father always said that if the two Koreas were reunified, he wanted me to visit his hometown, where fruit is plentiful and there is always enough to eat, asking me to bury whatever was left of his remains in his place of birth,” she said.

“My father suffered through his entire life in North Korea and died of starvation, longing for his hometown in the South.”

For its part, the North Korean government has said little about South Korean POWs under its control, essentially denying their existence.

“The South Korean authorities doggedly refuse the repatriation of unconverted long-term prisoners, calling for the ‘exchange’ of them for ‘POWs of ROK [South Korean] army’ and ‘those abducted by the North,’“ the official KCNA news agency said in a July 15,1999 report.

“The DPRK has no one to be exchanged, except those who deserted the disgraceful army and joined the people’s army to fight the enemy in the past Korean War and those who came over to the North of their own accord, cursing the South Korean society,” it said.

Original reporting in Korean by Sookyung Lee. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated and researched by Greg Scarlatoiu and edited by Sooil Chun. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie, and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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