While the focus of the MIA Fact Pages is on US MIAs from the Vietnam War, let us not
forget that Americans remain missing from other conflicts, too. Spurred on by the
success achieved by those who claim that US POWs were abandoned in Vietnam, there is a
growing crowd of MIA enthusiasts who claim that US POWs are still being held in North
Korea. Mr. Serban Oprica, a Rumanian electrical engineer who worked for a while in
NKorea, immigrated to the US and told a story about a chance encounter with people he
believed to be US POWs in a village in NKorea. It's a great story but it does not
stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
Serban Oprica, a Rumanian émigré to the United States, emerged in the late 1980s and told a fascinating tale that, on the surface, describes an encounter he had with US POWs still held in North Korea thirty years after the war there ended.
Mr. Oprica spoke first (I forget the dates; you can search the WWW and I am certain you will find the Serban Oprica story; get the dates there.) to a reporter for a Connecticut newspaper. He told the following story.
Oprica was an electrical engineer who had been sent by the Rumanian government to North Korea (NK) as part of Rumanian technical assistance to the North Koreans. The Rumanians were lodged, as were other foreigners, in a hotel in central Pyongyang, the capital city of NK. The NK government wanted to help the foreign technicians break the monotony of living in Pyongyang so, from time to time, they arranged tours, outings, what have you.
On one occasion, Oprica and several other Rumanians were going to visit a museum. They boarded a bus provided by the NK government, complete with driver and guide. As they were on the way to the museum, the bus driver became lost and the bus ended up traveling north out of Pyongyang for some distance. (North from Pyongyang takes you toward border between NK and China.) As they were traveling along, lost, they passed an area where people were working in the fields. Oprica said that he noticed the people in the fields seemed to be larger than the ordinary Koreans he was accustomed to seeing. Then, the bus passed one of the men standing the field; the guy had Caucasian features and blue eyes.
Oprica reported that he and the other Rumanians began to speculate about the identity of these people and, among their speculation, was the possibility that what they had seen was US POWs still being held, thirty years after the end of the Korean War. He claimed that at that point, the NK guide became very excitged and concerend. According to Oprica, she intervened and let them know that they should not be talking about this subject. Eventually, the bus made its way back to Pyongyang and the incident has troubled him since.
Let's Examine The Story
Oprica's story does not stand up to even simple scrutiny.
The bus ride
The museum to which they were going was located, not out in the countryside, but in Pyongyang. Oprica claimed that, when they spotted the people in the field, the bus had traveled some distance out into the country north of Pyongyang, well up toward the Chinese border.
NK is a police state in which NK citizens and foreigners are controlled. The bus driver and the guide would have been employees of the secret police. They would have been screened and selected for reliability before they were allowed to have any contact with foreign visitors.
Would someone please explain to me how a NK secret police bus driver and guide would have become so disoriented that, on a simple trip to the other side of town, they became lost to the extent that they drove for hours through the countryside toward China? Oprica's story, if placed in Washington, D.C., for example, would mean that a US government bus driver and guide picked up some folks in Georgetown, headed for the Smithsonian, but they became so lost that they ended up near Winchester, Virginia, before realizing where they were. Right.
Tall, Blue-eyed People
Oprica's only identification of the people he believed to be US POWs is that they seemed to be taller than the average Korean and the man whose face he saw, briefly, at a distance of several feet, while moving along the road in a bus, had blue eyes and "Caucasian" features.
Why do we believe that any person with blue eyes and Caucasian features, seen in NK -- or anywhere else in Asia, for that matter -- is an abandoned US POW?
Consider this. For centuries, there has been contact between the European Russians who moved into the eastern provinces of Russia and Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians. For four years after WWII and before the start of the Korean War, there were 250,000 Russian troops in NK. And, from the late 1800s until the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, there were Russian troops stationed in NK, mainly protecting the rail lines that were owned and operated by Russian companies.
Does someone want to have me believe that none of these Russian troops married Korean woman and stayed in NK? In fact, there are known enclaves in NK -- small, but they are there -- where the NKs have collected families of mixed nationality and the government limits contact between them and regular Koreans. Why do they do this? To protect themselves from some imagined infiltration.
My bet is that what Oprica saw -- if he really saw any blue-eyed, taller people, was either old Russian soldiers who were married to NK women, or, the children of such unions, living in their isolated villages.
There are other possibilities. Anyone ever hear of the Ainu in Japan? They have almost all faded away now, but there is, in northern Japan, an ethnic group called "Ainu." They have distinctly Caucasian features, blue or gray eyes, tall, not shaped like Japanese, with blond or reddish hair. No one is certain where they came form; some experts believe they may be the descendants of Mongol invaders; other say they are descended from Russian adventurers who sailed from the Asiatic shores of Russia centuries ago.
The Story Changes
One other item to keep in mind is that Oprica's story has changed with various tellings. When Oprica talks to the press, to Congress, or to anyone except a serious interviewer, he tells a fairly story that is replete with all sorts of details.
Immediately after his story surfaced in local newspaper, we sent an interviewer to spend a few days with him and get the story. Oprica claims that he has never been interviewed by the US government. Nonsense; I am the one who signed the travel orders for the interviewer to go visit him. Oprica was interviewed, in English and Rumanian, for two days, by a representative of US Army intelligence.
When Oprica talks to US intelligence officers, his story becomes vague, and much less detailed that the tale he tells in public.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its eastern European empire, US government agencies working on the MIA issue began to gain access to the former Sopviet Union and to Eastern Europe. In the mid-1990s, US intell interviewed a Rumanian who had been in NK with Oprica. Are you surprised that her story does not match his at all? This source reported that they did, in fact, observe some folks who looked different from normal Koreans but that there were no indiciatons that these people were Americans. Instead, she reported her suspicions that they were mixed-nationality Koreans -- Korean and some western group. Her recollection of the bus trip is different, too; no one got lost, they were traveling to a site in the country near Pyongyang, and the bus driver and guide had no reaction to the sighting.
A legitimate question is why would Oprica lie about something as important as this? I can offer only two observations. The first is that Oprica was living in Connecticut at the time when the newspapers were giving a lot of play to the antics of one Congressman John Roland (now governor of Connecticut) who was, at the time, a follower of Billy Hendon. The second reason may have something to do with the fact that the FBI was looking into some of Oprica's Rumanian-US business connections and perhaps he thought a rollicking POW story would deflect attention from him. After all, if the FBI kept after him, he could always accuse them of harassing him because they wanted to debunk his POW story. Take your pick.
I wish this story were more exciting but it is not. That's all there is to it. Serban Oprica has been adopted by the MIA cult which claims that his story proves that US POWs were abandoned in NK. The story is nonsense.