My father’s bones in three suitcases: the children of Korean War prisoners who never came home


This is the original draft for my BBC feature story, partially revised to reflect my latest queries to the Ministry of National Defense and Son’s lawyers. Illustration by Davies Surya (BBC)

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“You, reactionary scum! Why don’t you go back to your country?” Choi recounts herself as shouting to her father’s face about forty years ago. 

She was very upset after knowing that her father’s social status had prevented her from going to university even though she was very eager to go and her grade in school was very good.

Her father was captured by the Korean People’s Army of North Korea while fighting on the South’s side during the Korean War. He wasn’t able to go back to the South even after the armistice.

The daughters and sons of the ‘puppet army’, the common derogatory the military of the North and the South call each other, were treated as the lowest in the North Korean caste.

Choi back then couldn’t accept that she was being punished for something she didn’t do and demanded an answer why her father remained in the North, leaving the stigma to her.

Instead of shouting back to Choi, her father calmly explained his assessment of what happened to him. 

“He said: our country was too weak… to get us back,” Choi recalls, mimicking her father’s slow manner of speech. Her father was from Chungcheong in the South, where people are famous for their slack, easygoing character.

“It’s not that our country abandoned us,” her father said.

Unlike her father, Choi sounds far from being easygoing. She was also resolute enough to follow her father to work in a coal mine in the northernmost area of North Korea for eight years after the heated conversation, once she understood what happened to her father.

Now in her late fifties, Choi decided to escape to the South eight years ago. All alone, leaving her entire family including a husband and children in the North. Due to her concern for the safety of her family, she agreed to be identified only with her mother’s surname.

But what exactly did happen to her father?

50,000 who never returned

After three years of the bloodbath, the communists and the UN forces signed the armistice on 27 July 1953.

The South Korean soldiers captured by the North, including Choi’s father, had high hopes as the word of the armistice reached them. Soon there would be an exchange of prisoners and then they will be returned to their families in the South, they expected.

North Korea did return the prisoners after the armistice. But only a fraction of them.

According to the official records, 8,343 war prisoners were able to repatriate to South Korea. The number of prisoners who couldn’t go back, however, is estimated to be more than 50,000.

North Korea had no intention to return its prisoners of war. During the armistice talks in 1951, about a year and a half after the war broke out, the communists only admitted 7,412 South Korean prisoners while the UN forces estimated that 88,000 South Korean soldiers were missing in action.

According to a later discovered document from the Soviet diplomatic archive, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung revealed to Joseph Stalin in 1952 that 27,000 South Korean prisoners were transferred to the KPA units in secret.

Seoul didn’t do the best it could have done and even aggravated the situation.

The South Korean prisoners of war “did not receive the necessary support from the South Korean government, which only took a passive position towards the armistice negotiations as it opposed any armistice without reunification,” wrote Professor Heo Man-ho of Kyungpook University in his 2002 paper.

Syngman Rhee, then President of South Korea who was desperate to reunify the Korean peninsula under his control, unilaterally freed more than 25,000 North Korean prisoners the UN forces kept a month before the armistice to sabotage the armistice talks. It made the repatriation of South Korean prisoners much harder.

The fate of the unrepatriated

What was waiting for those who couldn’t return to their families was backbreaking, forced labor. 

According to the seminal 2014 UN report on the human rights situation in North Korea, the vast majority of the South Korean prisoners who were involuntarily transferred to the North Korean army “were forced to work in coal mines, factories and farm villages in the northern-most parts of the country.”

“We thought this wouldn’t last long,” Yoo Young-bok, one of the prisoners who escaped North Korea after 47 years of forced labor said at the 2013 UN commission of inquiry hearing. “Because the South Korean government was there, because the president was there, we thought they would one day come looking for us trying to save us.”

“But five decades have passed and nobody came looking for us and tried to save us,” Yoo, one of the few former prisoners who are still alive in South Korea, added.

Most of the prisoners were soon discharged from the army but still, they were forced to work. They “were typically sent to work in mines in remote provinces where they remained until their death,” the UN report said.

Son Dong-sik was one of them. After being forced to work on a pulp factory expansion, he was sent to the remote northernmost village of Musan in 1956.

After two decades of backbreaking work in the mines, he was longer able to work due to lung cancer. Then he was sent to a logging camp that was 30km away from his home and again forced to work for another nine years.

Son was finally able to return home ten days before his death, his daughter Son Myeong-hwa said. In his deathbed, Son told his daughter to bury him in his hometown of Gimhae, somewhat 780km south, across the demilitarized zone, from where he died.

“If you get to go to the South, you’ve got to carry my bones with you and bury me in where I was born,” Myeong-hwa recounted her father as saying.

“It is so bitter to die here without ever seeing my parents again. Wouldn’t it be good to be buried even after I’m dead?” Myeong-hwa couldn’t ever forget her father’s last words.


The prisoners were granted citizenship after discharge and could marry and start a family. The stigma of reactionary puppet army, however, was hereditary. 

Prisoners of war, along with former capitalists, landlords and political prisoners, comprise the lowest part of the North Korean caste. Their families suffer the discrimination in almost every aspects of life, from education—as we saw in Choi’s case—and getting a job.

Myeong-hwa, as a young lady, tried to overcome the father’s stigma by marrying a promising military officer. Instead, her husband later had to be dismissed for no specific reason.

Every time she tried to get over by doing whatever she could, life in North Korea hit back with discrimination.

In a rare case for one from the lowest caste, she managed to work for Pyongyang’s illegal trading activity, delivering opium poppy from Chongjin to Pyongyang. When the authority found out someone smuggled some of the product to China, Myeong-hwa was made a scapegoat. 

After being tortured and forced to work for 10 months, she found out that her husband was dead. She then decided to escape. She escaped to South Korea in late 2005. Later some of her family joined her, including her two sons and her sisters.

Now she is leading the Korean War POW Family Association to address the prisoner issues and better the treatment of the families who escaped North Korea. Which, as we will see later, turned out to be harder than escaping North Korea.

Blind end of mine

Every story the prisoners and their families got to tell us is tragic, but Lee’s story would probably be the most traumatic of all.

Lee, who asked to be identified only with her surname, was from another remote village of Kyunghung in the northeastern border area. Her father was the prisoner of war and had been working at the blind end of a coal mine. 

It appears that he tried to give his children some sort of hope.

“We were brainwashed in school by day,” Lee recounts. “By night, my father came back from work and told us about South Korea.”

One of the oft-repeated topics was the day after reunification.

“Even if it doesn’t happen in my days, you’ve got to go to the South,” Lee recalls her father as saying to her siblings. “There will be a medal for me, and you will be treated as children of a hero.” 

But the life in the North as a child of the prisoner was too harsh to bear. Due to the cursed social status, Lee’s younger brother had nowhere else to work than a mine since the age of seventeen.

“After coming back from the mine, he always cried,” Lee says. “He said he can’t work there anymore. Out of hunger indeed but he was also in fear. There were accidents almost every day: explosions and collapses and corpses…”

As the UN report notes, “many workers enslaved in the mines died from accidents or diseases contracted in the mines caused by the dust.” 

Public execution

One day, her brother made a mistake. He slipped the words about what his father told him while drinking with friends. One of the friends reported what he said, and he was taken away.

A few months later, his father was also taken away.

Lee was later visited by security officers and they took her to a stony ground next to a local stadium. She was seated under a wooden bridge. People started to gather around soon.

“After quite a while, a truck arrived, and two people got off. It was my father and brother,” Lee recalls.

“They tied them down on stakes and said they are traitors of the nation, spies and reactionaries. With three shots fired, they were executed,” she says with a shivering voice. “I… I don’t remember [what happened next], I think I was screaming. My jaw was dislocated. A neighbor took me home to fix my jaw.”

Lee could never recover the remains of her father and brother. She decided to disclose their name to let their suffering be remembered and to hold those killed them accountable.

Her father’s name was Lee Jae-am and her brother Lee Gang-cheol. Their names are on an allegation letter to the UN human rights institutions sent last month by the Korean War POW Family Association.

Lee escaped in 2004 but it took her years and a huge amount of toil in China to finally make it to South Korea. In a gaunt figure, she had to take a break a few times during her interview with the BBC Korean, probably from the stress of recollecting traumatic memories and I had to stop before she finishes telling me about her ordeals in China.

Shattered hopes

A few days later the public execution, security officers took Lee to her father’s deserted house and began searching.

They found an old, locked chest and ordered her to open it. She couldn’t because she didn’t know where the key was. Her father would never let his kids see what’s inside, she said.

When they broke it open, there was nothing inside other than a ragged military uniform.

“It was so ragged that the trouser was almost nowhere,” Lee recalls. “But I could see which part my father cared the most: the insignia on the collars. It was sewn over and over on a cloth.”

It was the token of his service in the time of urgent need for his country. By sewing it over and over, he might have been able to keep the flame of hope in his heart. When the time comes, everything he had endured would be recognized as heroism. 

At least that’s what the children of the prisoners, including Choi, Lee and Son Myeong-hwa, dreamed of when they made it to South Korea.

Their dreams were soon shattered in pieces.

Neglect and indifferences

Settling into the life in South Korea, they soon learned the country has done little to get the unrepatriated prisoners back.

The military dictatorship that took the reigns of the country after the political demise of Syngman Rhee simply neglected them.

“The military dictators were right-wing, but they didn’t want to spend money for veterans,” Ethan Shin, legal analyst for the Seoul-based human rights group Transitional Justice Working Group says. “Chun Doo-hwan even dismissed the US’s compensation offer for the Agent Orange victims in the Vietnam War.”

“He might have been worried that the Korean War veterans might stand up and demand some fairness in compensation,” Shin, who helped the families drafting the letter to the UN added.

The situation remained the same even after South Korea was democratized by popular movements.

While three South Korean Presidents since the democratization have met the North Korean leaders, the unrepatriated has never been on the agenda of the inter-Korean summits.

Hubert Younghwan Lee, executive director of the TJWG, points to several factors regarding the lack of interest from the South Korean side to the issue. The sense of helplessness that the US took the lead in the armistice talks, just like what Choi’s father had in his mind is one.

There has been also a sense of disregard for the matters related to the South Korean army during the war among the South Korean progressives who sought to improve inter-Korean relations, Lee added. Since the issues like the unrepatriated prisoners could be more of a bump in the road to the eventful summits.

Caught and sent back to the North

There are the families of the prisoners and even the prisoners themselves who made it to South Korea but almost all of them had to do it on their own, without little help from the South Korean government. 

The first prisoner who successfully escaped to South Korea was Lieutenant Cho Chang-ho. At the age of 62, he escaped North Korea after 43 years of forced labor. The South Korean spy agency helped him get back to Seoul. He was given a warm welcome by the President and was admired as a national hero.

The inconvenient truth later revealed was that the South Korean spy agency first refused Cho’s family’s request to help him, worrying it may cause diplomatic friction with China. However, when the government needed to distract the public’s attention from the tragic accident of the Seongsu bridge collapse, the spy agency agreed to help Cho and brought him from the international water between China and South Korea in 1994.

More than 80 prisoners of the war have managed to escape to South Korea so far. Many are beyond the age of 90, now only 23 are alive today.

Other prisoners who tried to escape was less lucky. According to the UN report, some were shot to death at the scene and the others sent to a political prison. 

The case of Han Man-taek, one of the prisoners who were included in the allegation letter to the UN by the POW family association, is rather indignant than tragic.

In 2004, Han sought to escape at the age of 72 when he managed to contact his family in the South. He made it to Yanji, China but was arrested by the Chinese police there.

The Ministry of National Defense hadn’t done anything even though Han’s family notified it of his escape plan. Upon the news of his arrest, Han’s family called a South Korean consul in China to tell him where Han is in custody and the contact of the police officer in charge, but he didn’t try to reach Han or the officer.

Han was sent back to the North and later sent to a political prison. Han’s family later heard in 2012 that he passed away three years ago. 

Han’s family sued the government in 2013 for negligence. The first instance court accepted the government’s responsibility and ordered the government to compensate the family, but an appeals court later dismissed the case, citing the statute of limitations.

My father’s bones in three suitcases

One of the distressing issues the children of the prisoners faced when settling in South Korea was that they can’t be recognized as the children of their fathers on the record.

Many of the unrepatriated prisoners were considered to be dead by the Ministry of National Defense and their military records say that they were discharged during the war for being killed or missing in action. 

Many of the children were born in the 60s while their fathers’ military records say they are all dead or missing since the 50s.

To prove that she is the daughter of her father and to fulfill her father’s will, Son sought to get her father’s remains back to his country seven decades after the war.

Her brother and sister in the North dug up father’s remains and brought them to a broker in China. She met the broker in person and retrieved her father’s remains. 

Since there was no help from the South Korean government, she had to carry the remains in three suitcases. 

“Human remains may seem small, but they are quite plentiful,” Son says. “Three of us were carrying the suitcases and I was carrying my father’s skull in mine.”

There was a price to pay. Later she learned that her brother and sister were sent to political prison for what they had done.

Back in Seoul, she was able to prove her father’s identity and her own by DNA tests with the sample of her relative who has been living in the South since the war.

Fight for recognition and recompense

At least Son Myeong-hwa was able to get her filiation with her father recognized through a family court case with her DNA test results. She says she was the first case among the children of the prisoners who deceased in the North to be recognized their filiation by law.

Others are still waiting for their chances. The chances are not against them in court but most of them are too daunted to stand up to authority, having lived under severe discrimination for decades, Son says.

Choi recalled when someone asked why she decided to come to the South, leaving all her family behind. “I said: because my father wanted to come here… because I wanted to come to the place whom I loved the most in my whole life wanted to come but could have never done so, I abandoned my son, my daughter and my husband.”

“Then at least they should recognize me as his daughter… Why do they deny my father’s life in whole?” Choi asked back, raising her voice.

“When I see soldiers [in their mandatory service] around here I say: do not ever go to the military,” she added in a quivering voice, “If a war breaks out and you are taken prisoner, you will end up in a coal mine like my father did. You youngsters better run away should a war breaks out.”

Meanwhile, Son is waging a fight for other than recognition: compensation for her father’s ordeal and the government’s negligence.

She and her lawyers filed a constitutional court case this January, arguing that the families of the prisoners who died in the North are being treated unfairly.

While many of the unrepatriated prisoners never came home, some managed to escape to South Korea. So far, there have been more than 80 prisoners who made it to the South after decades of forced labor. 

They received about 720 million won ($600,000) from the government in recompense for their unpaid wage and retirement allowances.

But the families of the deceased prisoners only received about 50 million won ($42,000). 

The Ministry of National Defense says according to the law on repatriation and treatment of the prisoners of war those who couldn’t repatriate alive are not subject to the recompense of their unpaid wages and retirement allowances. 

The ministry also added that it doesn’t consider as killed in action when a Korean War veteran dies “after the war” (BBC Korean pointed out the Korean War is not technically over but the ministry didn’t answer back) whether they were prisoners of war or not so there is little reason to grant rewards for them.

The Korean War POW Family Association recently finished the production of a documentary film on the unrepatriated prisoners, entitled Abandoned Heroes No. 43. Son wishes to be able to visit all sixteen countries who fought the war under the banner of the UN forces to screen the film as soon as the coronavirus crisis ends.

“We were so sad to be born the children of the prisoners and were more sad to be under a blind spot even after coming to South Korea,” Son says.

“We decided that we can’t wait anymore. If we can’t recover our fathers’ honor in our time, the horrendous lives of the prisoners of the war and their children will be all forgotten.”

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