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 wives, 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 Kim Jong Il, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung didn’t even bring up 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.