By Thomas Powell, Socialism and Democracy, Submitted by Jeff J Brown.
The capture and internment of prisoners of war (POWs) became the most complex issue of the entire Korean War. This was due to the efforts of both the US and China to use the POWs as pawns in a grand international propaganda war which raged with abandon, headlining the conflict and dragging the stalemated ground war along in its wake. Most POWs on both sides were captured in the first year of the war. And both sides were unprepared for handling the large numbers of captured prisoners. The first winter of 1950–51 was especially severe, the coldest of the century, and many POWs died from sub-zero temperatures, lack of winter clothing and bedding, frostbite, gangrene, starvation, dysentery, dehydration, winter flu, forced marches, exhaustion, and executions. Medical treatment was mostly non-existent. Again on both sides, POWs who lived through internment had to devise a personal survival strategy, each for himself, and a collective or group survival strategy. This classic struggle between the individual and the group was much accentuated by the prison environment, and by the political agendas of the opposing sides, and it played out very differently in the two camps.1 In a sad irony, the contentious issue of prisoner exchange which stalled the armistice talks a full 18 months directly punished all POWs by doubling the length of their incarceration.
The 1929 and 1949 Geneva Conventions granted certain rights to captured prisoners, but these tenets were only selectively observed by either side. The North Korean captors in the first winter of the war were brutal and vindictive towards US/UN POWs as would be expected of treatment toward an invading army which had committed grievous atrocities upon the civilian population. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) was responsible for the death marches moving captured and wounded US/UN soldiers from the front lines to the rear. The KPA turned over its captured prisoners to Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) custody at the internment camps located in North Korean villages along the Yalu River which separates North Korea and China. POW living conditions and rations improved while the Chinese captors undertook a social experiment of adapting their “leniency policy” to US/UN captives. By contrast, the sprawling US-run prison complex at Koje Island (spelled Geoje today) relied on WWII-vintage enclosed stockades, massive prisoner overcrowding, gun towers, routine physical violence, and psychological warfare to maintain control.
The opposing penal philosophies of the two sides were not carrot vs. stick models as they may simplistically appear. They are better understood as tactical means to win the intensifying and clangorous East–West propaganda war with little regard for POW welfare on either side. Through physical and psychological coercion, both parties sought to manipulate their captives. The POWs became pawns on the Cold War global stage.
Interrogating prisoners to discover their personal history, race, religion and political consciousness was a core component of the propaganda war. The Koje prison complex held 20 times more POWs than did the Chinese-run camps, and the US negotiators at Panmunjom sought to take full advantage of this disparity, but neither side’s prisoner population was homogeneous. Camps on both sides were internally divided by important distinctions ‒ nationality, political factions, secret societies, languages, hometown, and race. The Koje prison camp also included a compound for women prisoners. Incarcerated populations will self-segregate into groups and factions. This allows captors to exploit prisoner differences, provoke conflict, use violence, and create propaganda.
The public relations goals of the US and China were the same. Each state had to drumbeat public support for the war at home while simultaneously cultivating worldwide public opinion. The scorched earth tactics of the US bombing campaign especially the napalm bombing, and MacArthur’s threats to use the atom bomb, began to sour international public support for the UN’s war. Then, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai dropped another stunning bombshell in March 1952 – Zhou accused the US of using bacteriological warfare against North Korea and China!
For evidence of the claim, China produced confessions by four US POW pilots admitting to having conducted germ warfare bombings against North Korea and China. This accusation was a terrible shock to the American public. It was beyond imagination that this could possibly be true, and the Truman Administration vehemently denied it. But the North Korean and Chinese charge of US bacteriological warfare was loud and unrelenting. The POW confessions made the US self-image seem effete, and the US needed its own headline POW issue.
That new topic became “voluntary repatriation.” This concept introduced a novel “liberal” principle of individual rights of prisoners of war which had not previously existed in military convention. Prisoners of war of diverse backgrounds, regardless of what army they were serving in when captured, should now be allowed to choose which home state to be repatriated to at the end of hostilities.
The US Navy took on the task of truce negotiations under the direction of Vice Admiral Charles Turner Joy, with Rear Admiral Ruthvan Libby as head negotiator. Historian Monica Kim discusses Libby’s role as the presenter of the new US liberal policy of voluntary prisoner repatriation, introduced by him into discussion on January 2, 1952.2 Journalists Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington wrote that this strategy had been conceived six months earlier, and the US had sat on the policy for six months of truce negotiations waiting to spring it.3
Burchett and Winnington further claim that the intended purpose of the new policy was to scuttle the ceasefire talks. While the American public was rapidly tiring of the war and wanted it ended, the Pentagon and the Truman Administration did not. They wanted the unqualified capitulation of North Korea which they believed to be within grasp if the ceasefire negotiations could be stalled long enough. Under Ridgeway’s command the US ramped up its saturation bombing mission in the North intending to cut off enemy supply lines behind the front. When this tactic failed to stop the resupply chain, in the dead of winter of 1951–52 the germ war campaign began.4
Voluntary repatriation was a tactic by the US for stalling the negotiations. To implement such a policy, the US declared it would need to interrogate each prisoner once again to determine individual choice of repatriation. This new process became a violent flashpoint with the POWs, who understood it as a euphemism for a whole new round of coercion and torture. And this is indeed what happened under the most appalling regime of brutality, torture, and mass murder.
China also invested heavily in interrogation with many educated and English-speaking Chinese recruited to the task. The leniency policy of the Red Army in Manchuria and China had achieved considerable success in switching allegiance of both war lord and Kuomintang soldiers. The method consisted of both physical and psychological rewards and punishment coupled with intense “political re-education.” This was the interrogation model implemented against the US/UN prisoners that came to be called “brainwashing.”
Capture and internment
Following months of military raids and provocations by the South Korean Army (ROKA), the KPA launched a massive invasion of the South on June 25, 1950. The ROKA put up little resistance in retreat. Many turned their weapons upon the civilian population leaving brutal massacres in their wake.5 But other ROKA soldiers had been unwilling conscripts and deserted back into the civilian population. The KPA dragooned many of these ROKA deserters it discovered into its own ranks as the army moved southward in the first two months of the war. This tactic swelled the numbers of the KPA, but it also set in motion later prison clashes between South Korean-born POWs, North Korean-born POWs and their US captors.
At the outbreak of war, some occupation soldiers from the US had remained stationed in Seoul and other South Korean cities training ROCA and protecting US business interests, and they offered nominal resistance against the KPA invasion as the ROKA collapsed and fled south. Gen. MacArthur rushed in US reinforcements from Japan. The Battle of Osan on July 5, 1950, was the first major engagement between US soldiers of the 24th Infantry Division to slow down the much larger advancing KPA. More troops were brought into battle in a series of southward retreating engagements through Taejon and Taegu. These soldiers were the initial group of American prisoners taken captive during the first three months of combat. General William F. Dean, the highest-ranking US soldier captured by communist forces was apprehended at this time.6
The KPA attack bogged down in September with the siege of the southern port city of Pusan. Behind a perimeter fortified by offshore naval bombardment, the US assembled a large counter-attack force at Pusan harbor with 140,000 troops deployed from the US, Japan, Okinawa and the Philippines. About 30,000 ROCA troops were also reassembled and UN forces from the UK, Canada, Australia, the Philippines and Turkey arrived. On September 15, 1950, the US launched a naval bombardment which leveled the port city of Inchon on the Yellow Sea. The US landed an invasion…