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A Series on South Korean POWs Remaining in North Korea: Issue 2
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2016-01-28 16:16:40
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The following article is the second 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


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 2: Military or Human Rights Issue? 


Before we discuss the central aspects of the unreturned South Korean POWs detained in North Korea, we should take a look at the legal aspects of this issue. It can be interpreted as a military issue in that these prisoners were captured and detained as POWs. At the same time, the situation can also be considered from a human rights perspective, in that the POWs have been forced to endure severe discrimination and inhumane treatment, and refused proper treatment as POWs. 


In most formal aspects, the issue of South Korean POWs remaining in North Korea seems to be viewed entirely from the military angle. The POWs were soldiers when they were captured and detained in North Korea, and their repatriation has been discussed mainly by the Military Armistice Commission (MAC). Furthermore, the issue has only been considered a special concern for the military specialists who have implemented the follow-up measures after the cease-fire agreement. 

If seen through the lens of both South Korea's Constitution and its international legal obligations, however, the issue of unreturned South Korean POWs is a matter of great concern in the realm of human rights abuses. South Korea's Constitution stipulates that "every person can enjoy human dignity and value" (Article 9). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also stipulates that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (Article 13 (2)). Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also stipulates that "everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own" and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country" (Article 12 (2) and (4)). 

However, the North Korean regime has neglected these legal obligations and systematically blocked the South Korean POWs’ return to their country. In particular, the gravest issue is the violation of their freedom: their rights to freedom of movement and freedom of residential mobility, including that of immigration, have been unjustly violated. In this context, the issue of the unreturned POWs requires a new perspective rather than restricting it to merely a military one. 

Recently, as the POWs begin to age, interest in the issue is starting to grow both at home and abroad, and it has emerged as one of major topics discussed in relation to human rights in North Korea. As South Korean military solders who were captured and detained in North Korea, they are still South Korean people whose human rights must be protected by the South Korean government. It is clear that the detained POWs have been exposed to various suppressive and discriminative measures imposed by North Korean regime.

■ Legal Status of the POWs in the Human Rights Laws and Their Actual Condition in North Korea 
The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, so called Third Geneva Convention, is a major international legal obligation for South Korean POWs detained in North Korea. It stipulates that "prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated" (Article 13); "all prisoners of war shall be treated alike by the Detaining Power, without any adverse distinction based on race, nationality, religious belief or political opinions, or any other distinction founded on similar criteria," (Article 16) and "prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities" (Article 118).   

The North Korean regime has violated the Convention in a number of ways: the detained South Korean POWs have not been treated humanely; the regime has routinely discriminated against them with diverse arbitrary measures; and the POWs have neither been released nor repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. The Convention, which is designed to protect victims of wars or armed conflicts, is different from domestic laws in terms of binding force. Consequently, it is all but impossible to make the North Korean regime follow the Convention. 

Then, how has the North Korean regime treated the South Korean POWs detained in North Korea? Numerous South Korean POWs who have returned since the mid-1990s have testified about their experiences during their time in the north. After the Korean War, they were forced to serve as North Korean soldiers or mobilized into rehabilitation projects. Branded as 'the POWs of a puppet army,' they were forced to do dangerous and hard work, such as disposing of undiffused bombs, setting explosives in mines, and cutting and logging operations. They were dispatched to Aoji, Musan, Sang-hwa-cheong-nyeon, and Hakpo coal mine regions. The POWs received identification cards as a result of North Korea's 'Cabinet Decision No. 43' in 1956 and were assimilated into North Korean society. However, this assimilation did not mean that they no longer faced discrimination.

Disparagingly called "No. 43," South Korean POWs have dealt with much discrimination in their daily lives. Their chul-sin-seong-bun as South Korean POWs determines their social mobility in society. Chul-sin-seong-bun consists of three major classes, core, wavering, and hostile, and 51 sub-categories. The POWs belonged to the lowest, hostile class, and were deprived of the educational opportunities and party affiliation that would have improved their social, political and economic status in North Korea. Their low social class also negatively impacted the POWs’ children. Regardless of how smart they were, they would have to work in a coal mine as long as their father was a South Korean POW. The majority of workers dispatched to the coal mine regions are said to be the families of the South Korean POWs. 

Most unbearable for the POWs was the hopelessness that they felt, as if their motherland had already forgotten them. They sank into despair when their hopes of returning to South Korea ended fruitlessly, following the ‘June 15th North–South Joint Declaration.’ A year after that summit, South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung administration repatriated all 64 unconverted long-term prisoners to North Korea. These prisoners were either North Korean POWs or spies in the south working to realize North Korea's ambition of a forceful unification. The Kim administration returned these North Koreans to their country as a humanitarian measure, despite negative public sentiments. However, this government measure did not rescue even one detained South Korean POW from the North. Since Cho Chang-ho, who returned to South Korea in 1994, all 81 South Korean POWs who have returned to their motherland have done so only by their own efforts. 
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