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August 5th, 2004
A State of Mind
North Korea and the Korean War: 1951-1953 Peace And Pows

On July 10, 1951, peace talks began between the U.N. and North Korea in the village of P’anmunjom, just north of the future Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). At the center of the talks would be the question of prisoners-of-war.

North Korean delegates leave the peace conference at Kaesong.
Photo: NARA

Both sides had committed atrocities against POWs. The U.S. charged that American POWs had been starved, subjected to political brainwashing sessions, and randomly executed. Throughout the war, speeches by American POWs calling for an end to hostilities had been broadcast. U.S. military sources indicated that roughly 38 percent of all U.S. prisoners-of-war died in captivity.

Meanwhile, Chinese and North Korean POWs experienced their own difficulties. Until the UN attempted to regulate prison camps, enemy soldiers caught by South Korean forces were often summarily shot . . . or worse. Even with some order imposed, cramped quarters, initially inadequate food, and frequent camp fights and uprisings between prisoners who did want to be returned to communist-held territory and those who did not were commonplace. In the UN camp on Koje-do island, the camp commander was taken prisoner by POWs, who demanded that he issue a statement about the inhumane treatment of detainees. By early 1952, the POW camps were in full uproar.

U.S. soldiers with three North Korean POWs.
Photo: NARA

To resolve the issue of POWs who refused repatriation, North Korea agreed to a system of UN camps that would hold the detainees for three months before the POWs made a final decision. Reportedly, North Korean prisoners who did opt to return home threw away clothes, shoes, chocolate, cigarettes, anything that they’d been given before the exchange.

But parting salvos had yet to be fired. Two final attempts by China and the North to gain territory failed. A PR campaign to charge the U.S. and UN with germ warfare on North Korean and Manchurian territory proved more successful. The U.S., for its part, destroyed irrigation dams that provided 75 percent of the water for the North’s farms. Meanwhile, the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March 1953 made the USSR’s begrudging shipments of military supplies to Mao and Kim’s forces even more uncertain.

A newly released North Korean POW.
Photo: NARA

On July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed by the UN, North Korea, and China. South Korea, outraged that a cease-fire had come without the unification of Korea, refused to sign, but agreed to abide by its terms. Under the terms of the agreement, both sides withdrew two kilometers (about 1.3 miles) from the border, creating the Demilitarized Zone that is patrolled to this day.

The three years of war had killed an estimated 3 million Koreans, most of them civilians, and made an estimated 5 million refugees. Losses to foreign forces were also immense: nearly 1 million Chinese troops, 33,700 U.S. troops, and a few thousand troops from 15 UN member-states died in the fighting.

North Korea claims the war killed some 405,000 U.S. troops and avoids mention of China’s contribution.

  • Ralph Effner
  • Jake Starling

    I am still wondering if the U.S. was indeed, at war with China during the Korean War. It appears that is so. Imagine that. We’d just helped the Chinese during WW2 with the Flying Tigers airlifts. They repay us with the Korean War. Well, maybe we’ll just not pay them back the money they’ve loaned us via purchasing our worthless treasury bills. That’d sure even things up in a hurry.

  • Donald R. McDaniel,USMC Ret’d

    Enjoyed the overviews very much-I landed in Inchon, was wounded on March 1953 when Chinese/NKVDs tried to restablish new demarcation line. Returned from Yokosuka Naval Hospital in time to witness repatriation at Panmunjon. Our regrets was that General MacArthur was not allowed by Truman to complete his intended mission of invading and conquering China-which we could have achieved; however, Politicians (as usuall) are incapable of military strategy; but compared with the current leadership even those wimpish warriors in Congress and the White House in that time period were ferocious and decisve in attempting to protect the American populace. I personally fear, that we nowe have those in command whose sole agenda is to destroy this Country from within.

  • Chen

    I don’t know where pbs gets it’s information but there are still American prisoners of war being held in North Korea. Go to and you can hear recent testimony from a man who spoke with them during the summer of 2007. I lived near the North Korean border in Northern China in 2007 and there are many accounts from eyewitnesses that tell of seeing Americans working on collective farms and along the roads near Anju, North Korea. Nearby is the forced labor camp where this businessman spoke with several American POWs in 2007. Google “Kaechon labor camp North Korea”. That is where there are more than 60 American POWs live today! I know as I have been near there and formerly worked for NSA.

  • Xu

    Do you konw the location of Korean? How far from US? How far from China? I worry about Extraterrestrial announce they have interests on the earth or Washington,D.C. although we far away their hometown.



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