South Korea Abandons Its Prisoners of War

Sixty years after the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War, there could be as many as 500 South Korean soldiers held captive by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seoul, incredibly, is doing little to obtain their release.

There were some 80,000 unaccounted South Korean combatants when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Pyongyang returned only 8,300 of them, however, in the prisoner exchange. The fate of the missing was of little interest to the South Korean public until 1994, when the first prisoner of war escaped to the South. Even then, the issue was not considered important to a nation determined to establish good relations with the horrific North Korea. Kim Dae Jung, the dissident-turned-president of South Korea, did not even mention the plight of the prisoners of war during his historic summit in 2000 in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il.

In 2007, the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae Jung’s immediate successor, talked to the North Koreans about the POWs, and Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, did the same. The last time both Koreas discussed the prisoners was February 2011, toward the end of Lee’s term.

“Time is chasing us,” said General Lee Sang-chul, now in charge of getting the prisoners back, to the Washington Post. And that observation is correct—Korean War veterans are at least in their 80s.

What is not correct is the one-star general’s assessment that Seoul does not have much leverage over the Kim regime. At the moment, the North Koreans want some 123 South Korean businesses to reopen their factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. Before Kim Jong Un arbitrarily closed Kaesong in early April, approximately 53,000 North Korean workers earned an average wage of $134 a month—and Pyongyang skimmed off 45 percent of the hard-earned cash.

The North also hopes the South will reopen the Mount Kumgang tourist resort as well as hand over substantial amounts of aid. There are so many levers the South can employ to move Pyongyang.

Park Geun-hye, inaugurated as president in February, has called her North Korea policy “trustpolitik.” It’s not clear what the term means—her advisers are figuring that out as they go along—but Seoul needs to say this: “The South cannot trust the North until Pyongyang fully accounts for prisoners of war.” In September 2002, Kim Jong Il, as he attempted to reconcile with Tokyo, admitted that Pyongyang had kidnapped Japanese citizens. Now it is the turn of his son, Kim Jong Un, to help end the Korean War by releasing all the South Koreans his state has wrongfully imprisoned for six decades.

Justice demands this. So should the South Korean people.

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