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More than six decades after the Korean War, a small group of North Korean prisoners of war who made a new life in South America may get a chance to return home as part of a documentary film.
Last weekend marked the anniversary of the last major war in the Korean peninsula. The 1950–1953 Korean War or, in the words of Tessa Morris-Suzuki, the great “hot war” within the Cold War, started when North Korean troops crossed the arbitrarily established 38th parallel and forced their way south. The United Nations Command (UNC), composed of forces from 16 nations, including Australia and New Zealand, joined the South Korean military effort to halt the North Korean advance.
As the war unfolded, both sides soon faced the complicated task of handling prisoners of war (POWs), whose numbers were rapidly expanding. The UNC established several POW camps around South Korea, with the largest on Geoje-do (or Geoje) Island. It is said the camp was a little city within the island where around 170,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs waited, uneasy and fearful.
Negotiating POWs fate
The POWs’ repatriation was indeed a point of fierce debate in the negotiations of the armistice that started a year after the outbreak of the war. Accordingly, the UNC position was to allow North Korean POWs to decide between staying in the south or returning to the north, while North Korea insisted on the return of all POWs.
The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), with India as umpire, chairman and executive agent, supervised the repatriation of POWs from both sides. Statistics shows that under the operations Little Switch and Big Switch eventually around 83,000 POWs were repatriated to the north, while around 22,000 preferred to remain in the south.
There were, however, 88 POWs — 76 North Korean and 12 Chinese — who declined either option and went to India instead, and then later to Argentina and Brazil.
Decades later, Korean filmmaker Cho Kyeong-duk is trying to preserve their memories in a documentary that reverses their trip, taking them from South America back home to North Korea.
New start a world away
In 2007, I met one of the surviving North Korean POWs who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Kim Kwan-ok was born and raised in Pyongyang. He was 21 years old when the South Korean Army captured him in North Chungcheong province and transferred him to the UN POW camp on Geoje-do. Upon the ceasefire in 1953, Kim decided he could not return to the north, as he feared for his life, yet he could not stay in the south either, because it was not his homeland.
Finding himself without a family, relatives or friends, he decided to leave Korea and restart life elsewhere. Kim remembered sobbing endlessly as the Astoria, the ship that took him and other POWs to India, slowly departed Incheon harbour on 9 February 1954. At that point, he thought his connection to his motherland was truly over.
While in Madras (now Chennai), Kim learnt poultry farming, took a course in photography and practised some sports. Although “free”, he remembered that there was not much to do for the POWs in India. Yet the issue that troubled them more than boredom was their uncertain future.
As the wait became longer, the POWs grew anxious and one day they all marched to remind the authorities of their existence — only to be confronted by guards.
Eventually, a few POWs decided to settle in India. Others returned to North Korea and three went to South Korea. According to Kim, however, most wished to emigrate to the United States. When the option became unlikely, many chose Mexico instead, hoping to remigrate to the US at a later date.
Unfortunately, Mexico declined their request, but Brazil and Argentina agreed to accept Korean POWs. Almost two years after their arrival in India, 55 North Korean POWs embarked to Brazil to start life anew, and in the next year or so 12 followed suit to Argentina.
When the then stateless Kim arrived in Argentina, all he possessed was his youth. With the help of a local Catholic organisation, he found shelter and a job, slowly making his way through a new life.
Consequences of war
When the first South Korean immigrants arrived in Argentina almost a decade later, Kim was at the port to welcome them and helped them get settled. He even served as the first president of the Korean Association in Argentina.
A few other North Korean POWs, especially those in Brazil, took a similar initiative, even when South Korean newcomers tagged them as “the prisoners” or “the communists”. Yet many POWs preferred to quietly blend in to local society and slowly disappear from the eyes and memories of all. They wanted to get away from the trauma of the war and the atrocities witnessed at Geoje-do POW camp. The POWs sought to live free of ideologies and prejudices.
Whether or not the POW participants of this project complete their return home, it is a reminder that the human consequences of any war are carried in the hearts and memories of the people who fought, wherever they end up living.