Time running out for Korean War POWs still held by North
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.