North and South
By Kathryn Tolbert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 23, 2000; Page A17
SEOUL In a large, old house in one of Seoul's poorer neighborhoods, seven men ranging in age from 72 to 90 wait out their last days in South Korea before going home to the North in September.
They were young men when they left North Korea, some to fight behind enemy lines as guerrillas during the Korean War, others sent later as spies. They were caught, put in prison and served up to 34 years because they would not renounce communism.
South Korea has released more than 80 of these long-term prisoners in recent years--the last in an amnesty at the end of December--but refused to let them leave the country.
So they live now as if suspended in time, their points of reference in the 1950s and 1960s, when the North was more prosperous than the South. They reside in group homes supported by sympathetic South Koreans, living on welfare and doing part-time jobs, mostly cleaning.
North Korea has demanded that these men be allowed to return, and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung agreed during last month's summit meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. Between 55 and 60 former prisoners who say they want to go home will be sent back this fall. Others have chosen to stay.
South Korea has tried repeatedly over the years to make these men part of a deal that brings home South Korean prisoners of war and others believed held in the North. Kim Dae Jung raised the issue with Kim Jong Il last month, said Moon Chung In of Yonsei University, a member of South Korea's delegation at the summit.
North Korea has denounced these efforts. "This is a far-fetched plot to evade the repatriation of the unconverted long-term prisoners," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a typical report last year. "There are no such South Koreans in the North."
South Korea estimates that there are about 300 prisoners of war still alive in North Korea, many working in coal mines. More than 400 civilians, mostly fishermen, also have been taken captive since the war ended in 1953, South Korean officials have said.
But North Korea's Red Cross has said these people "broke with the South Korean society of their own accord." They "have made homes, enjoy a happy life and still refuse to go back to the South Korean society," it said in a statement.
Editorials criticized the one-way return of North Koreans. "We believe that the issue of the South Korean POWs and civilian captives must be resolved as part of a package deal that includes the North Korean spies," the Korea Herald said recently.
But Moon said the spies are being allowed to go home for humane reasons. "Let those people decide where to live."
For the seven men in the old house in southwestern Seoul, the decision was easy. They left families behind and say those families are certainly waiting for them.
"I have no doubt that the party and our nation are taking care of our families," said Sohn Sung Mo, 72, who spent 18 years in jail before being released last year. "I have no worries that they are well fed and well educated."
The men are not convinced by what they see in South Korea. "Outside is great, rich, flashy, but that's fake," said Ryu Woon Hyong, 77. "Bridges fall down and department stores collapse. Those kind of atrocities are exactly what I expected it to be."
And they don't believe the reports of North Korea's famine and poverty. "I know what the South Korean government says about the North's condition," said Hong Kyong Sun, 76. "It's true the North's economic situation is difficult, but I don't trust the media and government here. I think it's exaggerated. The North's regime guarantees fairness and true freedom."
Even though Hong has relatives in South Korea, he is not close to them. He says they were harassed by the government during the early years of his imprisonment and could not visit him.
"We all came here to fight for independence and the unification of the country. We are not spies that you think of in general terms," Hong said. "We have relationships and backgrounds in both the South and North. This is our home town, our home country."
"We are the same nation, the same blood," said Shin Kwang So, 72. "We've been separated because of foreign forces. I'm over 70 years old. My return to Pyongyang will be a breakthrough in pushing reunification to the next level. It will be a very happy moment for me. . . .
"My mission was illegal. Had I succeeded I would have gone back safely. But despite my failure here in South Korea, I am so grateful, with tears in my eyes, and happy that chairman Kim Jong Il has called for our return."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
End quote, July 23, 2000, Washington Post
So, we find that South Korea has their own North Korean "prisoners of war" whom they have "not released." Note, of course, their reference to these old men as "spies." Are they really spies? Is it possible that the South Koreans who returned from the North, claiming to have been unrepatriated prisoners, were actually South Korean spies arrested by the North?
The point here is that no one should accept this gamesmanship between the two Koreas as proof that US prisoners from the Korean War are still held in North Korea. They are not and were not.