Shot haven’t been fired in the Korean War for nearly 70 years—but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Officially, the Korean War never technically ended. Although the Korean Armistice Agreement brought an end to the hostilities that killed 2.5 million people on July 27, 1953, that ceasefire never gave way to a peace treaty. At the time, South Korea’s president refused to accept the division of Korea.

    A peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea today would be anything but symbolic, however: It could usher in real change in both countries. But should serious peace talks ever occur, they might run into a major obstacle: prisoners of war.

    That might sound eerily familiar to anyone familiar with how the Korean War wound down. In 1953, prisoners of war became a thorny sticking point between both sides, threatening any chance of peace and contributing to an ongoing stalemate as millions died. Yet the end of the war hinged on successfully negotiating the fate of POWs on both sides. Those negotiations resulted in two massive prisoner exchanges that marked the war’s end.

    The exchanges took place in two waves—Operation Little Switch, in which sick and wounded prisoners changed hands, and Operation Big Switch, the final push to exchange all remaining prisoners between sides. Fraught with controversy and risk, these prisoner of war exchanges were among the tensest moments of a war marked by catastrophe. And they still affect the chance of peace across the Korean peninsula.

    US and South Korean prisoners of war are paraded through the streets of Pyongyang by communist troops during the Korean War. The US officer in the center was forced to wear a Hitler mustache and swastikas and drag a US flag.

    A messy proxy war

    The Korean War was a military and diplomatic disaster from its very beginning. The war was technically between North Korea and South Korea, but it played out against a backdrop of Cold War tensions. After North Korean forces invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United States led United Nations forces to defend South Korea. North Korea was advised, armed and trained by the USSR, and China came to its aid with over 2 million soldiers—the first time the Chinese military had fought on a large scale outside of China. As a result, the conflict was a proxy for the Cold War.

    That chill marked the war from the start. Troops quickly became entrenched after a failed attempt to conclude the war deep inside North Korea. For two years, both sides fought around the 38th parallel, achieving a complete stalemate that was matched by a stalemate at the negotiating table between the parties, who could not agree on how to cease the war.

    Meanwhile, casualties and deaths piled up. Nearly 37,000 Americans were killed during the war. At least 1 million South Korean civilians were killed, and 7,000 South Korean military members died. In North Korea, 406,000 soldiers died, and 600,000 civilians were killed. Another 600,000 Chinese military members died in the war, too.

    Among the deaths were those of prisoners of war who faced torture and starvation in North Korea. Conditions were especially hard for South Koreans who were captured by North Korea and China. Viewed as traitorous defectors, they were treated harshly. Though POWs detained by the United States died, too, they were more likely to die of infectious diseases like dysentery.

    An exchange of prisoners between the United Nations and the Communists at Panmunjom, Korea in August 1953. 

    Central Press/Getty Images

    How POW exchanges became a sticking point in peace negotiations

    During the war, the United States and its allies captured tens of thousands of Communist soldiers. Many of those POWs claimed they had been coerced into fighting for China and North Korea and said they did not want to return to their home countries once they were exchanged.

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    This presented a serious stumbling block to peace negotiations between the parties. North Korea and China insisted that their POWs be repatriated; the United States and South Korea refused on humanitarian grounds. Finally, as the military stalemate dragged on, North Korea and China relented, conceding to American demands to let prisoners of war either return or be granted asylum with their captors as long as a neutral UN commission handled POWs who didn’t want to return.

    The newly empowered Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, led by India, sprang into action. The first priority was sick and injured POWs, and in April 1953, Operation Little Switch began. The Communists traded 684 United Nations troops for over 5,000 North Koreans, 1,000 Chinese and about 500 civilians. However, United States officials complained that the Communists were construing “sick and wounded” so narrowly that they had not released the proper number of POWs, and squabbling over the best way to exchange the prisoners continued.

    Two Indian soldiers carrying a weeping Chinese POW to the exchange point in Panmunjom, North Korea, for return to the Communists after the Korean War in the early fall of 1953. He was among 65 Chinese soldiers who asked to be repatriated to their homeland.

    Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

    The next phase was the trade of the much larger number of POWs who were not deemed sick or wounded. By then, the terms of the armistice had mostly been hashed out. On August 5, 1953, Operation Big Switch began. Over 75,000 Communist prisoners were returned to North Korea and China, which handed over 12,722 prisoners from the United Nations Command. Over 22,000 Communist soldiers decided to seek asylum rather than return to their home countries; 88 defected to India , instead. And a handful of Americans refused to be repatriated.

    It was an ambitious exchange, and not without major crises. The main one came in the form of Syngman Rhee, then president of South Korea. He did not want the war to end at all without the reunification of Korea, and Rhee threatened to mobilize his own soldiers against their UN allies during prisoner returns. Another problem was the condition of the POWs, many of whom had been subjected to torture and brainwashing while in Communist custody.

    And then there were the POWs who were not returned at all. About 80,000 South Koreans were in North Korea when a ceasefire ended the war. Most are thought to have been put to work as laborers, “re-educated,” and integrated into North Korean society. In 2010, South Korea estimated that 560 were still alive. Their ordeals in repressive North Korea were unknown until a small group of defectors told their stories.

    A Korean caretaker uncovers a pit in the corner girls high school yard where the cloth-covered body of an American prisoner of war was found. Some POWs held by the North Koreans were forced to dig their own graves.

    AP Photo

    An armistice without a peace treaty

    The United States withdrew from the Korean War in 1953, after a ceasefire and armistice agreement brought the fighting to an end. But that didn’t mean an end to the war itself. Nearly 70 years after it started, the Korean War is technically still in progress. China, North Korea and the United States both signed on to the armistice, but South Korea, intent on reunification, did not. A failed 1954 peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland yielded no peace treaty. Since the armistice is a military agreement and not a treaty between nations, the war still technically continues.

    So do questions about what happened to the POWs North Korea never returned. Both South Korea and non-governmental organizations have asked for their repatriation, but North Korea refuses to address the issue. Meanwhile, the status of the few who are presumed living is unknown. About 80 former POWs did escape North Korea. But though the prisoner exchanges of 1953 helped bring an end to the military portion of the Korean War, it didn’t put an end to questions about the remaining POWs’ fates. 

    READ MORE:  Why Are North and South Korea Divided?

    READ MORE: North Korea’s Devastating Famine

    Are there still POWs in Korea?
    Most are presumed dead, but the South Korean government estimated in 2007 that some 560 South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) still survived in North Korea. The issue of unaccounted South Korean POWs from the Korean War has been in dispute since the 1953 armistice. more
    Why does Korea not tip?
    Tipping is not a custom in South Korea as most people believe that providing a good service should be standard and therefor one should not be expecting to get a tip. Nowadays with all the foreign visitors, some staff are used to receiving a small tip and will be grateful for your gratuity. more
    Are guns legal in Korea?
    South Korea has extremely strict gun regulations. Private guns for hunting or target practice must be stored and registered at local police stations. All gun owners receive and regularly renew gun permits. These permits require extensive background checks. more
    Is college free in Korea?
    Unlike the United States and most European nations, a majority of Korean students attend an independent private university. Though universities receive significant direct subsidies from the central government, tuition at both public and private institutions still costs thousands of U.S. dollars per year. more
    What is PoW coin?
    Key Takeaways. Proof of work (PoW) is a decentralized consensus mechanism that requires members of a network to expend effort solving an arbitrary mathematical puzzle to prevent anybody from gaming the system. Proof of work is used widely in cryptocurrency mining, for validating transactions and mining new tokens. more
    Did Mongols conquer Korea?
    A series of campaigns were conducted between 1231 and 1270 by the Mongol Empire against the Goryeo dynasty of Korea.Mongol invasions of Korea. more
    Who would win in a war North Korea or South Korea?
    With more than fifty times the economic strength, a vast technological advantage, and twice the population, South Korea could build a military of the size and capability necessary to deter and, if necessary, defeat another North Korean invasion. more
    Does Korea claim Tsushima?
    But the current government in Seoul — which controls a separate chain of islets that Japan says belongs to it — does not make any official claim to Tsushima. The islanders keenly feel Tsushima's history as a steppingstone for military forays in both directions. more
    Does Korea have geisha?
    SEOUL, South Korea — They are known as the "flowers that can understand words" — graceful entertainers from Korea's past who are adept at poetry, art and music, and are the peninsula's version of Japan's geishas. And they have become the new hot cultural property in 21st-century South Korea. more
    Is South Korea clean?
    In fact, the South Korean government has passed numerous environmental laws, of which include restrictions on both green belts and emission that have dramatically improved Seoul's air quality. Despite this improvement, South Korea remains one of the most polluted countries in the world in terms of air quality. more
    Does Korea celebrate Christmas?
    South Korea is the only Asian country that recognises Christmas (or Sung Tan Jul) as a national holiday. Although Koreans will have the day off to sit back and relax with their nearest and dearest, it is not a traditional holiday like Seollal or Chuseok. more

    Source: www.history.com

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