Ideology grappled geography in a civil war with no end. As the Korean War froze along the trenches and barbed wire entanglements, harbingers of the final line of control that was to divide North from South for a lifetime, the United States fought and sought a political triumph as a surrogate for military failure on the battlefield. Armistice talks in May 1951 started, hiccuped, stopped and then were reborn and recycled as Washington stubbornly—to the chagrin and incredulity of its own negotiators—refused to abide by the 1949 Geneva Convention requiring the simple repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs) at the end of military conflict.
The US Psychological Strategy Board had recognized the Chinese and Korean POWs in the South as a putative “fifth column” capable of being weaponized into the fulcrum that could leverage victory from defeat. The Trojan Horse was to be “voluntary repatriation”. This is the message of The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War. Stand the game on its head. If you can’t gain territory, win minds. POWs were to choose between “freedom” or “slavery”. To refuse to go “home” was to validate the war and US imperial expansion. The conflict was transposed from place to people. In Korea it may have been the last throw of the dice, but it became Washington’s default strategy as the psychological cold war raged.
It was a reflection of the changing nature of conflict. Wars were now less between nations and more between faiths. It was a return to the medieval wars of religion. At the end of the First World War, British and German POWs happily went home. The same is true of the Second World War, save for Hitler’s Foreign Legions. His Cossacks went to their deaths, his French, from the SS Charlemagne Division, to detention and his British Free Corps to disgrace. Here, both Koreas and China recruited without discrimination. Nationalist soldiers captured in China’s own civil war ended up “volunteering” to defend the revolution they previously opposed on the Korean peninsula. After the tide of war swept the North to the far south, the Korean People’s Army was bolstered by tens of thousands of press-ganged “volunteers” who would retreat north when the tables turned. The South did the same in reverse when its time came.
Yet these finicky POWs were created, not found, as Monica Kim details. The ideological battles for the prisoners’ minds were fought out in the cages of Koje island, where 170,000 POWs were held in a series of interconnected camps. Among the Koreans the fight was between the communist cadres and representatives of the extreme-right Anti-Communist Youth League and the North West Young Men’s Association—who served as Syngman Rhee’s private enforcers. The North countered, dispatching a senior officer to take charge in the camps. In September 1950, Lee Hak Ku “approached two American soldiers sleeping on the roadside, and roused them by gently shaking them” before surrendering. Lee, a senior colonel, was the highest ranking North Korean “captured”. Among the captured Chinese, it was about the tension between the merits of Mao versus the coercion of Chiang Kai Shek’s agents, as evocatively portrayed in Hai Jin’s War Trash (2004).
The course was modeled on Japanese practice during the colonial period, education and duress, tagging and murder. The US employed as camp guards bad troops under worse commanders. They opted to leave the prisoners to police themselves, leaving violence and terror to rule the various compounds. Where the South ruled, the unsure and uncertain were forcibly tagged with tattoos of “Rid of Communists”, “Death to Kim Il Sung” and the Taegukgi (the flag of the Republic of Korea). The most intransigent were tortured and killed. At worse the US colluded, at best remained indifferent. The result was, where the cadres were in control, a series of planned and orchestrated riots demanding the Geneva Convention. The camp commandant Brigadier General Dodd was kidnapped. The demands were a thousand sheets of writing paper and recognition of “The Korean People’s Army and Chinese Volunteer Army Prisoners of War Representatives”. Dodd was released with his fountain pen broken and his reputation in ruins. His successor, Haydon Boatner, was ordered to secure and maintain uncontested control. He did. US troops stormed the compound with tanks, tear gas grenades and flamethrowers. Thirty-four prisoners and one US soldier died. The indoctrination continued unabated.
In the end, with the death of Stalin, the US got its way. POWs were to get their choice. For the Koreans it was to be Pyongyang or Seoul, for the Chinese Taipei or Beijing. For the agnostics there was to be a third way. After the armistice this process needed to be supervised. India volunteered to police it. Six thousand Indian troops arrived after the war was over to form the Custodian Force (India) to guard and process the prisoners. These were the intransigeants who didn’t want to go home. The Armistice Agreement laid down that each POW was to be individually interrogated so as to confirm his wishes after listening to the pleas of representatives from the homeland. It wasn’t the fault of the Indian soldiers, but the process veered between farce and fiasco. When it started, about 4% of the POWs changed their minds and opted to repatriate. That was not what was meant to happen. To stop the leak, the remaining POWs wrecked the system. Those suspected of backsliding were maimed or killed. The process was sabotaged. It could have been brought to a conclusion if the Indians had imposed “uncontested control”. They had seen the cost in Koje and Delhi was neither prepared to pay it, nor did Washington want it. Every defaulter was a loss. Time ran down and out and the POW’s metamorphosed into civilians in January 1954.
Pyongyang won the propaganda war, Beijing lost. As Monica Kim details, 91% of POWs who originated in North Korea chose repatriation, but only 31% of Chinese. The 84 in favor of a third way ended in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India. Yet there was a sting in the tail. UN Command prisoners faced the same process. To the horror of Washington, 21 US and one British soldier opted to stay behind. For Washington it just wasn’t possible: it must be communist chicanery. Its name was “brainwashing”, a dastardly system breaking American minds. Worse still some of those returning might have been turned. Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate was born. The journey back for the American POWs was on floating interrogation centres as they were processed and catalogued. Three “sleepers” were identified—an African-American, a Filipino and a Nisei—and hundreds of collaborators. They kept the FBI busy for years.
The reality was North and South were just opposite sides of the same “brainwashing” coin. In Koje it was on an industrial scale, while for the Chinese it was more craft practice. The US POWs had their equivalent of the Anti-Communist Youth League. For them it was chapters of the Ku Klux Klan who preached and policed white supremacy among the illiterate “white trash” and labeled the African-American POWs “niggers”, forcing the latter to post guards at night to protect each other. Whether the Ku Klux Klan was more influential than the Chinese in recruiting a disproportionate number of minority Americans into the ranks of the twenty-one is far from clear.
The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War is a serious and well documented history throwing new light on Washington’s evolving Cold War tactics and implementation. Not everyone will welcome its insights, but they are not easy to escape.