Time running out for South Korean POWs still in North

Now in their 80s and 90s, many will never return to homeland

The Washington Post

Sixty years ago this month, a 21-year-old South Korean soldier named Lee Jae-won wrote a letter to his mother. He was somewhere in the middle of the peninsula, he wrote, and bullets were coming down like “raindrops.” He said he was scared.

The next letter to arrive came days later from the South Korean military. It described a firefight in Paju, near the modern-day border between the North and South, and said Lee had been killed there in battle. His body had not been recovered.

“We never doubted his death,” said Lee’s younger brother, Lee Jae-seong. “It was the chaos of war, and you couldn’t expect to recover a body.”

But Lee was not dead. Rather, he had been captured by Chinese communists and handed to the North Koreans, who held him as a lifetime prisoner, part of a secretive program that continues 60 years after the end of the Korean War, according to South Korean officials and escapees from the North.

Tens of thousands of South Korean POWs were held captive in the North under the program, penned in remote areas and kept incommunicado in one of the most scarring legacies of the three-year war. South Korean officials say that about 500 of those POWs — now in their 80s and 90s — might still be alive, still waiting to return home. In part because they’re so old, South Korea says it’s a government priority, though a difficult one, to get them out.

Almost nothing was known about the lives of these prisoners until 20 years ago, when a few elderly soldiers escaped, sneaking from the northern tip of North Korea into China and making their way back to South Korea. A few dozen more followed, and they described years of forced labor in coal mines. They said they were encouraged to marry North Korean women, a means of assimilation. But under the North’s family-run police state, they were designated as members of the “hostile” social class — denied education and Workers’ Party membership, and sent to gulags for even minor slip-ups, such as talking favorably about the quality of South Korean rice.

When the war ended with a July 27, 1953, armistice agreement that divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, about 80,000 South Korean soldiers were unaccounted for. A few, like Lee Jae-won, were presumed dead. Most were thought to be POWs. The two Koreas, as part of the armistice, agreed to swap those prisoners, but the North returned only 8,300.

The others became part of an intractable Cold War standoff, and the few POWs who have escaped say both Koreas are to blame. The South pressed the North about the POWs for several years after the war, but the issue faded from public consciousness — until the first successful escape of a POW, in 1994. The North, meanwhile, has said that anybody living in the country is there voluntarily.

South Korea took up the POW issue with greater force six years ago, as it became clear that a lengthy charm offensive — known as the Sunshine Policy — wasn’t leading the North to change its economic or humanitarian policies. During a 2000 summit with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung did not even mention the issue. But by 2007, the South was talking about the POWs in defense talks. And by 2008, under conservative President Lee Myung-bak, South Korea offered aid to win the prisoners’ release.

But with relations between the two governments badly frayed, the countries have not discussed the issue since military-to-military talks in February 2011.

“Time is chasing us,” said Lee Sang-chul, a one-star general at the South Korean Ministry of National Defense who is in charge of the POW issue.

But without North Korea’s cooperation, Lee said, the South has little recourse to retrieve its soldiers. Lee said that, realistically, the POWs have only one way to return home: They have to escape.

So far, about 80 have.

They gather for annual dinners in the South, and some meet for regular card games. They’ve been given overdue medals and overdue apologies. They’ve testified about the POWs they know who are still in the North. They’ve shaken hands with the president. They’ve received major compensation payments — about $10,000 per month, over five years.

The returnees have encountered all varieties of surprise, both bitter and grand, as a half-dozen of them described in recent interviews. One escapee, Lee Won-sam, was married just before the war and reunited with his wife 55 years later. But many left families in the North only to find alienation in the South. The POWs, like others in the North, were told for decades that the South was impoverished and decrepit — and their arrival in the South revealed the extent of that deception while also dropping them into incomprehensible prosperity. A handful lost money in frauds, South Korean officials say.

“I thought South Korea had lots of beggars under the bridge and everybody lived in shacks,” said Lee Gyu-il, 80, who escaped in 2008.

Many escapees say that after the war, they were initially hopeful that the South would secure their return. That hope withered in 1956, when the North assembled the prisoners and told them about Cabinet Order 143, which turned them into North Korean citizens — albeit those of the lowest rank. They were told to be thankful that they had been welcomed into a virtuous society.

“Sadly, there was no real change in our daily lives,” Yoo Young-bok, who escaped in 2000, wrote in his memoir, which has been translated into English. “We went right on toiling” in the mines.

Those who have escaped acknowledge their luck. It wasn’t easy for them to flee. Some had to travel for days through the North and then dart across a river forming the border with China — at an age when some had trouble running. Brokers helped guide them but also charged them more than the going rate for defectors, knowing that the escapees would receive large payments after settling in the South.

They know a few who are still stranded in the North. Most of the former prisoners have died from mining accidents, disease, execution, famine and old age.

In Lee Jae-won’s case, it was liver cancer. It was 1994, and he was 63. After being captured by the Chinese and handed to the North, he had worked for four decades in a mine at the northernmost point of the peninsula, near the Russian border. He’d married a woman with one eye — a fellow member of the hostile class — and had four children, all of whom were ridiculed by teachers and classmates for their family background.

But only as Lee’s health deteriorated in his final months did he tell his children, for the first time, the details of his earlier life. He gave one son, Lee Ju-won, the names of family members in the South, as well as an address: the home in which he was raised.

“So after I buried him, I decided to go there,” Lee Ju-won said.

It took him 15 years to defect. Two days after Lee Ju-won was given his South Korean citizenship, he traveled to his family’s hometown, Boeun. His relatives still owned the original property, though the home had been demolished and rebuilt.

During that visit, Lee Ju-won learned that his family had celebrated his father’s birthday every year and always set aside a rice ball for him at the New Year’s feast. He also discovered his father’s letter from Paju, written weeks before the armistice, which a relative had saved.

Lee Ju-won learned that his father, before the war, had been rebellious and talkative — characteristics he stifled in the North, though he passed them on to his son.

“It turns out my dad was a lot like me, though he didn’t show it,” Lee Ju-won said.

  • Carlos

    As always, the Japanese media tries to make look North Korea as a devil, I don’t deny that now the prisoners being up there in the North live in the harshly and brutal conditions that this generally good newspaper tells to us. But I have to remember that until 1988 the situation was reversed, SK was an impoverished country, with a fascist military dictatorship. While North Korea was a Industrial, rich, socialist country. I want not my pragmatist ideology with sympaties to the left to interfere here, but that’s how I see it, and I am pro-north, though with reserves. The only error of the North is its anti-japanese policy.

    • Osaka48

      The refusal to repatriate South Korean POWs after the cessation of hostilties was (is) a despicable act in violation of the most elementary codes of conduct expected of a civilized and normal country.

      The ‘DPRK’s’ conduct hasn’t improved since, with the horrific revelations that it kidnapped Japanese citizens from the very shores of Japan…launched missiles over Japanese territory…sent spy ships into Japanese waters and then assaulted with gun fire the Japanese Coast Guard ships that intercepted them.

      We could go on about this criminal, rogue regime. They are global outlaws.

      And Carlos is “pro-North”?

      How many of NK’s gulags do you acknowledge, Carlos?

      • Carlos

        Come on, I don’t deny any of the facts, I don’t even support the actual government of North Korea because its rogue with its own citizens.Criminal? why? because they don’t obey the USA laws? Because the USA can have nuclear weapons and the evil North Koreans have not right to have it? I am pro-North because the DPRK is the only reduct of Independence in the Korean peninsula and I wish it was a non-marxist socialist state the USSR . North Korea has its errors, but all of them, except the excessive cult of personality to the leaders, are the cause of having the whole world against them, sanctioning them, just because having their own nuclear weapons come on¡¡¡¡

        I Acknowledge all Gulags and I think THAT is a motive of Sanction and NOT their nuclear program.

      • Osaka48

        Carlos,
        You have failed defend NK…only to accuse other countries…and your position is not understandable at all. To say that NK “has its errors” is the most huge understatement as its citizens suffer immense starvation, deprivation of the most basic human rights, and “state terror” and imprisonment (gulag) for the smallest violation.

        I don’t have to “go on” so much as the whole world recognizes the conditions in NK…except you.

      • Carlos

        You seem to not know how to read, I say I acknowledge the gulags and I said that this is a motive for sanction North Korea and NOT their nuclear program, I don’t have any admiration for their “Great Leaders” or thinks like that. I just prefer the North to the south and I want NK to be unified under a China-like system, politically communist, economically capitalist. To what do you think I did refer with NK “has its errors”? Do you want me to say that they have suffered famine, human rights deprivation, and state terror, yes they had, but at least they are an independent nation who doesn’t bend down to foreign exigences. A Misleaded nation since the death of Kim-Il Sung.

      • Osaka48

        They don’t “bend down” to the entire United Nations Security Council that has condemned their outlaw behavior, including Russia, China? What “friends” do they have left? Cuba?
        Your response is quite amazing: You acknowledge their state initiated famine, human rights violations, state terror…but “empathize” with them because the WHOLE WORLD has condemned their abhorent, uncivilzed behavior?
        You must be from Cuba.

      • Carlos

        1- Yes, it is. Where I denied it?

        2- Was wrong and It would have never to happen, but remembet World War II.

        3- Yes, and I am not a communist,I am a pragmatist which defends countries that stand on their feet against the US imperialism ( thing that Japan should also do) and do not let other countries to interfere in their affairs, they also maintain (like Japanese people, which I admire, a traditional way of life and morals), though they should modernize also and combine that things like Japan

        4- All of them.