Share This Page

Time running out for Korean War POWs still held by North

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

SEOUL — Sixty years ago this month, a 21-year-old South Korean soldier named Lee Jae-won wrote a letter to his mother. Bullets were coming down like “raindrops”; he said he was scared.

The next letter to arrive was from the South Korean military. It said Lee had been killed there in battle and 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.”

But Lee was not dead. He had been captured by Chinese Communists and handed to the North Koreans, who detained 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. 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 wives, a means of assimilation. But under the North's family-run police state, they were designated as members of the “hostile” social class — 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 that divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, about 80,000 South Korean soldiers were unaccounted for. Most were thought to be POWs. The two Koreas, as part of the armistice, agreed to swap the prisoners, but the North returned only 8,300.

With relations between the two governments badly frayed, the countries haven't 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, only 80 have.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.