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A Series on South Korean POWs Remaining in North Korea: Issue 1
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2015-12-22 13:36:48
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The following article is the first in a series about the nearly 100,000 prisoners of war that were captured by North Korean forces during the Korean War and never permitted to return home. The series is being written by a NKHR intern and university student in Seoul, Ho-Yeon Jang. To date, Mr. Jang has written 15 articles. The series is being published monthly in NKHR's newsletter; English translations will be available online.  


A Series on an Unresolved Issue of North Korean Human Rights: 

Prisoners of War (POWs) that Remain Detained in North Korea


By Ho-Yeon Jang

NKHR Intern and fourth year student of Social Work at Yonsei University

(English translation by NKHR intern, William Han)


Although it has been 60 years since the end of the Korean War, a substantial number of South Korean POWs (prisoners of war) are still stranded in North Korea. The issue of unreturned South Korean POWs is not simply confined to military matters between North and South Korea but it is also considered a classic example of a human rights violation caused by the North Korean government, along with the abductions of South Korean citizens by the North. Several conferences and summit meetings have been held in the past to settle disputes whenever there have been conflicts between the two governments, but both sides have always neglected the issue of unreturned South Korean POWs. The main purpose of this paper is to enhance publicity, both internally and externally, regarding the unreturned POWs by reflecting on the issue in a more humanitarian context. 


Issue 1: Background and Developments 


The POW issue has been caused by North Korea’s illegal detention of South Korean soldiers

According to the “Act on the Repatriation, Treatment of the Republic of Korea Armed Forced Prisoners of War” [a South Korean law concerning the POWs from the Korean War], a South Korean POW is defined as a South Korean soldier who is detained in a hostile country (including an anti-government organization) or by any rebel group while executing his or her duty. From the perspective of international law or based on humanitarian principals, it is customary to send return POWs when there is a cessation or a temporary stoppage in hostile actions between the countries. In addition, the Geneva Convention (III), article 118, states that “[p]risoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.” The North Korean government, however, failed to comply with these international laws and conventions without any legitimate reason. This irresponsible behavior of North Korea is what led to the problems surrounding the unreturned South Korean POWs.


The issue of POW repatriation was a major point of contention during the Armistice negotiations at the halting of the Korean War. Both sides were unable to come to an agreement on the number of POWs to repatriate.  A humanitarian principal that the POWs should have the freedom to choose to remain where they were being held or return to where they had come from governed the decisions of the South Korean and UN forces. Thus, of all captured North Korean and Chinese troops, only those who chose to return were repatriated. A total number of 82,493 soldiers were repatriated, 75,823 of whom were North Korean, and 6,670 of whom were Chinese.


On the other side of the DMZ, however, North Korea was busy concealing the actual number of South Korean and UN POWs they had captured. Because North Korea purposely left out a large number of South Korean and UN POWs in their roster, only a small number of South Korean and UN POWs were released. North Korea repatriated only 13,457 soldiers, 8,333 of whom were South Korean, and 5,124 of whom were from the UN.


According to the UN Command’s special report that was submitted on August 1953, the number of South Korean POWs and missing persons during the war amounted to 82,318 people. That is nearly the same number of soldiers that were members of the South Korean army at the start of the Korean War.

The history of the POW repatriation issue and where it stands now

Tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers who risked their lives for their country are still illegally detained in North Korea. None of them have been officially returned. The North Korean government has continued to deny the presence of these men. According to North Korea, all POWs were already handed over to the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) at the time of the signing of the Armistice Agreement and no more POWs remain in North Korea. To the extent there are any remaining POWs, North Korea argues that all of these men have chosen to voluntarily remain in North Korea and are not being forcibly detained.


Is this really true? Are there really no South Korean POWs still forcibly detained in North Korea. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia investigated the issue of POWs during the Korean War and they both confirmed that unreturned POWs did in fact exist. Further, according to a classified document from the U.S. Ministry of Defense that was made public in April 2007, 12,000 South Korean citizens who had been abducted by North Korea, including some POWs, were forcibly sent to Russia. These men were then used as forced labor in projects such as building public infrastructures and airports. In addition, since 1994, a small number of South Korean POWs have escaped to South Korea. Their testimonies also serve as a proof that the North Korean government is not telling the truth.


What has our government done to bring back the POWs? The previous administrations have been cautious in admitting the existence of the POWs or in bringing up the issue to North Korea. During the Kim Dae-jung administration, the POW issue was officially regarded as “an issue that was already resolved with the Armistice negotiation” or as “an issue that was resolved after the POW exchange with the North.” President Roh Moo-hyun tried to bring up the issue during a defense ministerial talk with the North but was turned down when the North behaved in an uncooperative manner. President Lee Myung-bak officially announced that he would try to resolve the issue but was unable to achieve any significant result from the negotiations with the North.


Later, Park Geun-hye’s administration seemed to take an active approach in trying to bring back the POWs. President Park said she would treat the POW issue as the government’s priority. In addition, Nam Jae-joon, a former director of the National Intelligence Service, criticized the past administrations for their passive roles, and Hyun Byung-chul, a director of the National Human Rights Commission also strongly expressed his desire to resolve the POW issue. However, until now, there has not been any significant outcome.


For a long time, because the POW issue had been treated only as a military matter, it was discussed only by the Military Armistice Commission and was not framed as a violation of human rights. There have been consistent meetings between the North and South to resolve several humanitarian issues but the POW issue has always been left out.


Regardless of their status as soldiers, POWs still deserve humanitarian protections. Thus, the South Korean government should take more responsibility in resolving the issue along with the issue of South Korean citizens abducted by the North.



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