MIA Facts Site

Korean War


The following question was left on the MIA Facts Site Guestbook on July 22.  My response follows.


Dr. C.F. MacDonald


Colonel Schlatter, as you certainly know, several (in excess of a half dozen) South Korean POWs have escaped from POW camps in North Korea over the past few years.

It shows us that prisoners are still being held, that they survive under less than wonderful conditions, and that they still look to come home. It also tells us that they are held for no apparent reason. . ."pearls of war", perhaps. What is your take on all that, and why couldn't Americans still be alive, particularly in North Korean ? Also, has anyone from the USG ever talked to ALL of these escapees and asked them about who they might have been held with ? What about the North Korean govenment officials that have defected ? High ranking guys who should know something. . . anyone talk to them yet ? (sic)


The South Korean "POWs"

Yes, I am aware that over the past few years a small number of former South Korean soldiers, who were lost during the Korean War, returned to South Korea, claiming that they had been captured during the war and not released for over forty years.  I am not convinced that their stories are what they are purported to be.  Their appearance has caused a stir among US MIA "activists" who argue that, if these guys were held for nearly fifty years, why would not US personnel be held for the same time. 

The question is valid but there is no reason to believe that US POWs were not released at the end of the Korean War.  US personnel interviewed these "returned POWs" after they returned to South Korea.  None of them had seen or heard of Americans held after the war. 

All of these South Koreans had several things in common:  they were originally from the northern part of Korea and they were put to work in coal mines or other industries after the end of the war.  As they became older and could not work in the mines, they were retired and lived on small pensions.  As economic conditions in North Korea worsened over the past few years, their lives became miserable -- as did life for most North Koreans -- so they "escaped" to South Korea.  Their "escapes" were interesting; basically, they were allowed to leave North Korea and go back to South Korea.  None of them reported that they "escaped from POW camps."  In fact, they each reported that they had been captured during the war, later made to work in coal mines or other industries, moved to retirement apartments, then "fled" to South Korea.

There is considerable question as to whether or not these people were actually prisoners of war.  They were -- at least this is what I have been told -- all born in what became North Korea when the country was divided at the 38th parallel.  There were  instances of northern-born soldiers in the South Korean army defecting to the North Koreans during the war -- going home so to speak.  Whether these men were any of these "defectors," I do not know.

Another fact is important here:  These men were Koreans, not Americans.   North Korea looked upon South Korean military personnel not as an opposing army, but as traitors and criminals.  Remember, "South" and North" Korea are creations of the Cold War; the country was not so divided until after WW II.   "North" Korea considered the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to be the legitimate government of the country and the government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to be an illegal government, and vice versa.  North Korea treated South Korean POWs differently from the way they treated Americans.

North Korean Defectors

The question is also asked as to whether or not US personnel have interviewed defectors from North Korea.

US MIAs in North Korea:  Not a new topic

First, let's understand that the question of US personnel missing from the Korean War was not just recently discovered by the Department of Defense.  Immediately after the end of the Korean War, investigations were conducted into the fate of missing men and the question of missing Americans from the Korean War has been a topic of investigation and   negotiation for the past 50 years -- it's not new.

389 "known POWs" never returned -- not exactly

For example, one of the myths about US MIAs in Korea is that at the end of the were there were 389 US personnel who were known to have been captured but never returned.   Former Congressman Bob Dornan was known to rave about "389 Americans who were seen eyeball-to-eyeball by other US prisoners."  Not exactly.  There were 389 men who were missing and who disappeared under circumstances where they could have been taken prisoner.  Most of them were in positions that were overrun but who were never found when US forces took the position  back from Korean or Chinese troops.   That's far removed from 389 men known to have been POWs.  After the war, investigations into these cases reduced the number of the men who were truly missing from 389 to some much smaller number; I do not recall the number but it was very small -- under 50 as I recall.  The investigations found that eyewitnesses had seen these men die or other information was developed

Graves registration in Korea

In the Vietnam War, US dead were placed in body bags, ponchos, and the like and taken back to central mortuaries, either Da Nang or Tan Son Nhut.  Not so in previous wars.   In the Korean War (and WW II, WW I, and preceding wars) men were buried in hasty graves.  Later, these hasty graves were exhumed and remains either returned to the US or the men were buried in cemeteries outside the US.

If a man died in combat, depending on the situation, after the action was over,

  1. His body would have been taken back to a graves collection point, or, buried where he fell.
  2. If he was buried where he fell, one of his dog tags was buried with him, the grave was marked, and a report was sent to higher headquarters with the description and location of the grave clearly recorded.  Later, graves registration units would exhume bodies from these hasty graves.
  3. If his body was taken to a graves collection point, the body would be processed -- identified, paperwork completed, etc.
  4. From the graves collection point, bodies would be moved to temporary cemeteries where they would be buried in marked graves and the cemeteries mapped.  Bodies buried in hasty graves were later exhumed and moved to the temporary cemeteries.
  5. The temporary cemeteries later were exhumed and remains moved either back to the US or to permanent cemeteries outside the US, managed by the US Battle monuments Commission.   Remember the opening and closing scenes of the movie "Saving Private Ryan?"  Those scenes were shot in a US military cemetery in France where tens of thousands of Americans are buried still.

Now,  consider these facts:

  1. Of the over  8,000 "missing" in Korea, many are men who were killed, bodies recovered, buried in hasty graves or temporary cemeteries -- and their burial sites are in what is now North Korea.  We know that these men were dead, know where they were buried -- it's just that we cannot recover them because we have not had access to North Korea since the end of the war.
  2. There are over 800 Unknowns buried in the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii.   Thus, 10 percent of the 8,000 missing are actually buried on US soil, it's just that we do not know who these men are.

Thus, when the figure "8,000 missing from the Korean War" is tossed around, that is a wildly inaccurate number because it includes men know dead, known buried, who cannot be recovered and it includes 10 percent of the total who are unknowns buried in Hawaii.

So, answer the question

To answer the question as to whether or not we have interviewed defectors from North Korea:  Yes, and we have been doing so since there were defectors from North Korea.   Not one of them has seen or heard of US POWs remaining in North Korea or anywhere else for that matter.

The American actor story

There is one story that pops up from time to time.  I expect that someone will tell me that there was a North Korean defector who told of seeing a movie in which a US POW played the role of an American soldier during the Korean War.  Not exactly.   In the late 1980s, a North Korean defector came into South Korea.  During his interrogation, he told of seeing a propaganda movie about the Korean War in which the role of an American soldier was played by a man who was identified to him as an American POW.   That is, he told us that he wondered at the American in the movie and someone told him that the man was an American POW who acted in North Korean propaganda films.

In fact, the American whom he saw in the film is a former US soldier who defected to North Korea in the 1970s.  Yes, folks, it is true that, over the years, there have been a small number of GIs who threw down their weapons and headed North.  Most of them eventually returned home, a couple of them died in North Korea or China, and some remain living in North Korea.  The individual whom the North Korea defector identified in the movie is a well-known US defector who plays the role of Americans in North Korean propaganda movies;  one US researcher even turned up a North Korean magazine article about him.

End of the Story

And that's the end of the story.  Yes, the six or so "former POWs" from North Korea have been interviewed as have defectors from North Korea.  None of them has provided any evidence of US POWs remaining in North Korea.


On July 23, 2000, the Washington Post published an article regarding several North Koreans still being held in the South, as well as claims of South Koreans still held in the North.  Read this article -- the bottom line is that the question of North - South Korean gamesmanship involving old men who may well NOT have been prisoners of war has no place in accounting for missing Americans in Korea.