A presumptive finding of death in each case!
Reports of American P.O.W.'s in North Korea Persist
September 8, 1996
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
SEOUL, South Korea -- One of the most elusive and maddening mysteries
swirling about East Asia concerns the occasional "sightings" of American
prisoners of war still supposedly held by North Korea, more than four
decades after the end of the Korean War.
Now the mystery is becoming even more elusive and maddening. A defector
from North Korea claims to have repeatedly visited a top-secret prison
camp housing elderly white and black men who, the camp guards told him, were
American prisoners of the Korean War.
The latest account is simply one more in a murky and inconclusive mosaic,
and many experts are extremely skeptical that North Korea could have --
or would have wanted to have -- kept American prisoners for so long. But
the new descriptions are by far the most detailed to have emerged so far,
and there is a growing sense in the intelligence community that the notion
of surviving American prisoners, however outlandish it sounds at first, is
a serious possibility.
The new testimony comes from Oh Young-nam, a 33-year-old former police official
who escaped to China last October and then came to South Korea. Oh was the son
of a bodyguard to the country's late "Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, and he himself
graduated from the elite police academy and joined the secret police.
In an interview on Wednesday, Oh said that from 1982 to 1993 he repeatedly visited
a camp housing the Americans, in a sealed-off area just north of Pyongyang. He said
he had never seen more than 20 or 30 Americans at one time, but that there were
others in their dormitories and so the total number was probably higher.
Once he and a group of other police officers stopped their car and gave a half-dozen
cans of beer to a group of the Americans, who said "thank you" in Korean but did not
engage in conversation. He said he had police friends working in the camp and that
they told him that the Americans had learned Korean and spoke with a good accent.
Oh said that the Americans, though painfully thin, were relatively well treated. He
said they lived in a one-story compound around a central meeting area and that a
tennis court was nearby -- although it lacked a net and was overgrown in the years
he saw it. North Korea officials had even found Korean wives for the prisoners,
The reports of American POWs were first published this week by Asia Times, a Bangkok-based
daily whose reporter spoke with Oh. During the interview on Wednesday, Oh said that
he had not realized that his conversation with that reporter would be published in a
newspaper, and he tried to avoid talking about American prisoners.
"I'll talk about anything else in North Korea, but right now I can't tell you about the
American prisoners," he said. "Some time later it may be possible."
Asked if American officials had ordered him not to discuss what he had seen, he refused to
say, but he squirmed a lot. The obstacle was apparently not South Korean officials, for Oh
is now being looked after by the South Korean security service and it could have easily
rejected the interview on one ground or another.
Still, Oh gave some details of what he had seen, and he added that he had spoken to American
intelligence officials in April and had shown them the prisoner-of-war camp in pictures --
presumably satellite photos.
J. Alan Liotta, deputy director of the Defense Department office responsible for prisoners of
war, would not comment on specifics but said the accounts of Americans in North Korea were
being carefully checked.
"We are continuing to investigate several reports to corroborate information suggesting there
may still be American prisoners from the Korean War being held in North Korea," Liotta said
by telephone from Washington. "To date, we have no first-hand reports."
Liotta said "first hand" meant that the person interviewed had not only seen Westerners but had
talked to them to confirm that they were American Pows and that they wanted to go home.
Senior administration officials, who are trying to reduce tensions with North Korea and entice
it out of its isolation, have played down the possibility that American Pows might still be
held captive. But in June an internal Defense Department report was leaked by Rep. Robert K.
Dornan, Republican of California, and it caused an uproar by suggesting that a small group of
Pows might still be held by North Korea.
"When you talk to working-level intel people, I think it's taken as a given that there are Pows
there," said a military intelligence specialist in Washington.
Some 8,100 Americans are missing from the Korean War, and it had been widely assumed that all
had died either during the war or soon after it ended in 1953. A Pentagon official who asked
not to be identified said that about a dozen reports of surviving Pows had emerged over the
decades, and that as a result a more intensive study was begun about a year ago. That study
then uncovered several more people claiming to have information on the Americans, the official
There is always a danger that defectors may be seeking publicity or American passports, or that
they are pushing a line devised by their South Korean guardians. But an American intelligence
expert on North Korea said that South Korea had never pressed an opinion on the POW question,
one way or the other.
"This is the first report that I've seen of an alleged first-hand recent sighting of that
nature," the expert said. He added that North Korea could have held on to some prisoners after
the war as a bargaining chip, and then after years passed felt it could no longer acknowledge
North Korea has vigorously denied the assertions, saying in an official statement in June that the accusation "has seriously gotten on our nerves." The statement added that if America pursues the issue, North Korea might revoke its permission for joint excavations now under way to search for bodies of American flyers killed during the war.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times
Reproduce Under the Free Use Act