Korean War anniversary: Prisoner island revisited

  • 27 July 2013
  • From the section Asia
Veterans in uniform with flags
Image caption Veterans who fought in the Korean War under the United Nations flag visit the Korean National Cemetery in Seoul

South Korea's Geoje Island is the place the Armistice built.

Now a pretty harbour, ringed by modern factories, it was once South Korea's wartime prison camp. North Korean and Chinese prisoners - 170,000 in total - were kept here during the Korean War: the human spoils of a vicious three-year conflict, which drew in more than 20 countries.

The prisoners kept here were all captured from Communist forces, but even Geoje - like Korea itself - was divided along political lines. And, says former inmate Lee Hyung-Geun, the conflict inside the barbed-wire fences was every bit as fierce.

"As soon as the sun set, that's when the witch-hunts began and the bloodshed started. Those who still sympathised with the Communists would be hunting out defectors, and the defectors would be hunting out the Communists."

"We used any kinds of weapons we could lay our hands on," he told me. "It became a battlefield. When dawn broke, there were bodies scattered everywhere. UN ambulances would come to the camp each morning to gather them up."

The camp at Geoje became the sticking point in the search for a truce - and the men and women inside it, pawns in a global propaganda war. The Communist forces wanted the POWs to be automatically repatriated home - as outlined in the Geneva Conventions. America and its allies wanted the prisoners to be able to choose their destination.

For more than a year, armistice negotiators tried to reach agreement on what should be done with their prisoners of war. While they debated, the fighting continued - and casualties on both sides rose. By the time the armistice was signed, more than a million people were thought to have died.

But the agreement they eventually reached broke new ground - allowing prisoners of war to pick sides - and changing the ground-rules for future conflicts.

Sixty years on, the men released from Communist camps, on the other side of the peninsula, are back in Seoul to be honoured for their past.

Major Rowley was one of them. He still recalls the "extra year" he spent as a prisoner in the North while negotiations rumbled on. They knew the truce was real, he said, when the food rations increased.

"When they told us that day the Armistice was signed, there wasn't any whooping and hollering and cheering. We just kind of looked at each other and said: 'I hope this is true.'

"The first thing that happened was we started getting food like you wouldn't believe, because they couldn't send us home looking like skin and bone - it wouldn't be a good advert for Communism."

But not all prisoners shared Major Rowley's excitement. On the other side of the Line of Control, inside Geoje's camp 85, former inmate Lee Hyung-guen says the mood was glum. Having decided to switch sides, some North Korean prisoners didn't want any kind of truce.

"We wanted to keep on fighting the Communists in the North", he told me. "We still do."

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