[Heroes from afar] Red Cross oversaw treatment of Korean War prisoners

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[Heroes from afar] Red Cross oversaw treatment of Korean War prisoners

From left, Kim Ju-ja, director-general of the International Relations and Inter-Korean Office of the Korean National Red Cross (KNRC), and Charles Sabga, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mission in Korea, speak with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the ICRC Korea's office in central Seoul on Aug. 12. [PARK SANG-MOON]

From left, Kim Ju-ja, director-general of the International Relations and Inter-Korean Office of the Korean National Red Cross (KNRC), and Charles Sabga, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mission in Korea, speak with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the ICRC Korea's office in central Seoul on Aug. 12. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
Despite being on opposite sides of a bitter war, there were still some lighter moments between the North Korean prisoners of war and the South Korean administrators who oversaw them.
 
In one photo taken during the Korean War (1950-1953), recently released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mission in Korea, two prisoners of war are engaged in a game of ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling) on a mound of earth, surrounded by a dense ring of onlookers. The excitement in the scene is palpable, even from the black-and-white photo dating back to June 1951.
 
“In keeping with the Third Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the ICRC encourages detaining authorities to provide opportunities for physical exercise and for being outdoors,” said Charles Sabga, head of the mission of ICRC in Korea. “The ICRC therefore supported the coordination of a sporting event to involve prisoners of war population and related camp administrators.”

 
A game of ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling) set up by the ICRC at the prison camp on Geoje Island, one of the largest prison camps during the Korean War, in June 1951. [ICRC]

A game of ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling) set up by the ICRC at the prison camp on Geoje Island, one of the largest prison camps during the Korean War, in June 1951. [ICRC]

 
 
This June, the ICRC Mission in Seoul released 70 photos to the Yonhap News Agency to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. The photos will be exhibited at the Suncheon National Memorial Hall in September.
 
Many of the photos, a majority of which were taken by news agencies at the time and sent to ICRC, stand as a stark testament to the hunger and other humanitarian crises experienced by the Korean people at the time — young children lined up at a soup kitchen, train cars packed to their roofs with refugees and parts of Seoul reduced to rubble.
 
The ICRC was in touch with both Koreas the day after war broke out, coordinating its work in the South with the Korean National Red Cross (KNRC).
 
A part of Seoul reduced to rubble after bombings during the Korean War in this photo taken in January 1952. [ICRC]

A part of Seoul reduced to rubble after bombings during the Korean War in this photo taken in January 1952. [ICRC]

 
 
“On June 26, 1950, the day after the outbreak of the Korean War, the president of the ICRC, Paul Ruegger, sent identical telegrams to the governments of North and South Korea offering the ICRC’s services and urging them to comply with the humanitarian principles enshrined in the Geneva Conventions,” said Sabga. “The ICRC clearly communicated to all parties to the conflict its will to carry out all four Conventions’ objectives: Protect the wounded, sick, shipwrecked, prisoners of war, and civilians.”
 
North Korea never got back to the ICRC on its offer of service. But South Korea did, allowing entry of ICRC personnel on the ground to attend to the protection of prisoners of war. The ICRC, at times with support from the KNRC, would go on to facilitate the exchange of prisoners of war across the inter-Korean border later in the war.
 
Sabga, head of ICRC Mission in Korea, and Kim Ju-ja, director-general of the International Relations and Inter-Korean Office of KNRC, spoke with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Aug. 12 at the ICRC office in central Seoul to relay the details of their work during the war and how it shaped their responses to conflicts elsewhere.
 
The following are excerpts from the interview, edited for space and clarity.
 
 
Prisoners of war in a camp in Busan weaving baskets on March 14, 1951. [ICRC/JACQUES DE REYNIER]

Prisoners of war in a camp in Busan weaving baskets on March 14, 1951. [ICRC/JACQUES DE REYNIER]

 
 
Tell us about the work of KNRC and ICRC during the war.
 
Kim Ju-ja: KNRC was on the ground by the time of the outbreak of the war, as it was established in Korea in 1905 when King Gojong (1863-1907) issued a royal decree for the foundation of the Red Cross in Korea. It was re-formed with the enactment of the Red Cross Law in 1949 under the new constitution of the Republic of Korea. 
With the outbreak of the war, the KNRC cared for victims of the war, including wounded soldiers in armed forces hospitals and patients at 10 Red Cross hospitals and clinic centers established in different cities. It also coordinated with Red Cross [members] of Sweden, Norway, India, Italy [and] Denmark, who deployed medical teams. As many as 35 foreign Red Cross Societies donated medicines and relief goods, which were distributed to victims of the war.
 
Charles Sabga: As the ICRC does in numerous armed conflicts around the world, the ICRC in Korea operated in coordination with the national Red Cross, in this case the KNRC. The ICRC’s role was initially limited to the prisoners of war, because when the UNC (United Nations Command) in Tokyo accepted accreditation of ICRC delegate Frederic Bieri, it referred only to the ICRC’s mandate in the Third Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. 
The ICRC visited prison camps in Geoje Island, Gwangju, Busan, Incheon and Seoul, from July 26, 1950, to August 1953, except for a two-month suspension due to a series of riots at the Geoje Island camp in May and June 1952. The ICRC enjoyed access to the base camps, the military hospitals and the transit camps, carried out more than 160 visits and distributed relief supplies including hygiene articles, leisure items and educational material for the prisoners of war. ICRC also provided 65,000 Swiss francs ($71,800) worth of medical supplies to United Nations Civil Assistance Corps Korea for distribution in the prisons. 
In keeping with the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention, the ICRC also supported the coordination of recreation and sporting events for prisoners of war. Around 4,000 prisoners of war participated in a type of sports event in Geoje, according to the ICRC archives. The kinds of sports varied from Korean wrestling to basketball games; they also performed various types of music events, including a Russian-style dance and choir supported by the ICRC.
 
KNRC employee Hwang Nahm-yong supervises the distribution of relief goods to refugees at an elementary school in Seoul on Nov. 2, 1950. [ICRC]

KNRC employee Hwang Nahm-yong supervises the distribution of relief goods to refugees at an elementary school in Seoul on Nov. 2, 1950. [ICRC]

 
Does the ICRC have a record on the extent of prison camps during the war?
 
Sabga: ICRC delegates detailed their observations of the prisoner of war camps to which they had access.This information is archived. However, beginning in early 1951, prisoners were gradually transferred to Geoje Island, where the U.S. army set up “POW [prisoners of war] Camp 1.” Virtually all the prisoners captured by UNC forces were eventually held in this camp — some 150,000 by mid-1951, of which 130,000 were Koreans and 20,000 Chinese. 
 
Was there ever a need for the ICRC to mediate between the prisoners of war who were ideologically disparate?
 
Sabga: The ICRC refrained from engaging in the screening of prisoners of war. The purpose of screening operations was to determine, as the armistice talks progressed and prior to repatriation operations, which prisoners of war wished to be sent back to North Korea or China, and which would actively resist repatriation, in order to separate the prisoners into two groups.
The ICRC considered for its part that, under its mandate, it was not required to take a stand on the general principle of screening. It informed its head of delegation, however, that it saw no reason to object should the detaining power decide to separate prisoners of war over ideological differences. 
It also believed that forcible repatriation was unthinkable in light of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross, which prescribed respect for the human person and, consequently, for the wishes of the individual.
 
 
Medical staff members tending to the wounded at prison camp No. 100 in Korea, which had 245 prisoners of war, on July 26, 1950. On the far right is ICRC delegate Frederick Bieri. [ICRC]

Medical staff members tending to the wounded at prison camp No. 100 in Korea, which had 245 prisoners of war, on July 26, 1950. On the far right is ICRC delegate Frederick Bieri. [ICRC]

 
What was the ICRC's and KNRC’s roles in the exchange of prisoners of war across the border?
 
Sabga: From January 1951, the ICRC delegation drew the attention of UNC headquarters to Article 109 of the Third Geneva Conventions, which outlines that “Parties to the conflict are bound to send back to their own country, regardless of number or rank, seriously wounded and seriously sick prisoners of war, after having cared for them until they are fit to travel.” 
The UN delegation in Panmunjom drew up an official proposal on the matter in December 1951, and again in February 1953. 
The actual repatriation took place from April 20 to May 3, [with] the UNC sending 6,670 wounded and sick prisoners (1,030 Chinese and 5,640 North Koreans) home and the North Korean and Chinese forces sending 684 prisoners (from almost all the countries in the UNC) home. The ICRC was involved only with the repatriation of severely wounded and ill prisoners of war.
 
Kim: According to the report of a KNRC representative, from Aug. 5 to Sept. 6 of 1953, North Korea released 12,760 prisoners to the UN command and 75,799 prisoners were released to North Korea.
 
Seated second from right, President Syngman Rhee, at a so-called Freedom Village near the border, a village in South Korea created by the United Nations to greet repatriated soldiers from the North, on Feb. 19, 1952. [ICRC]

Seated second from right, President Syngman Rhee, at a so-called Freedom Village near the border, a village in South Korea created by the United Nations to greet repatriated soldiers from the North, on Feb. 19, 1952. [ICRC]

 
Where does the work of ICRC stand today in the repatriation of remains of prisoners of war and soldiers killed in action?
 
Sabga: The ICRC provides advice, support and training to local authorities and forensic professionals in searching for, recovering, managing, analyzing and identifying the dead for humanitarian purposes. […] Given the possible location of mortal remains, in the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and elsewhere, it is important to consider the need for humanitarian demining, as a complement to the repatriation of mortal remains.
 
A separate prison facility for female prisoners at a prisoners of war camp in Busan in September 1951. [ICRC]

A separate prison facility for female prisoners at a prisoners of war camp in Busan in September 1951. [ICRC]

 
KNRC had been heavily involved with reunion of separated families in Korea. Can we expect to see reunions happen despite the escalating security dilemma between the two Koreas?
 
Kim: Since the inter-Korean summit in 2000, 21 rounds of family reunions were conducted and 20,604 people from 4,290 families have been reunited. As of July this year, we have 51,079 people of separated families are still alive in Korea, but more than 60 percent are aged above 80.
After the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018, both governments have agreed to extend more opportunities for the families to connect through video-streamed meetings or video messages. 
We have been collecting video messages from the separated families in South Korea since 2005 and have as many as 22,000 messages today. We are looking forward to having opportunities to deliver the messages to families in the North, particularly for those who are not able to meet face-to-face.
 
How did the experiences of the ICRC and KNRC inform humanitarian work in conflicts after the Korean War?  
Sabga: The ICRC was granted access to numerous prisoners of war camps in Korea. It was learned that a significant proportion of the detainee population was living in the jurisdiction of the South before the commencement of hostilities. Those persons were thereafter regarded as civilian internees, but were afforded the same rights and privileges as prisoners of war. 
On Dec. 12, 1950, with permission of the ROK minister of justice, ICRC delegate Jacques de Reynier visited two prisons in Seoul where over 9,000 civilians were detained and directly requested President Rhee to improve the conditions of detention and to free all civilians detained solely for political reasons. 
Since the two Geneva Conventions pertaining to protection of prisoners of war and civilians were signed in 1949, the Korean War was one of the first armed conflicts which provided for the application and interpretation of the conventions. 
Much was learned from the ICRC’s humanitarian experiences and from numerous legal and other interpretations of the Geneva Conventions, which were captured in the 1958 Commentaries on the 1949 Geneva Conventions. 
 
War refugees traveling on top of the train in Daegu on Dec. 29, 1950. [ICRC/JACQUES DE REYNIER]

War refugees traveling on top of the train in Daegu on Dec. 29, 1950. [ICRC/JACQUES DE REYNIER]

 
Kim: Representatives both from KNRC and the government participated as observers at the 18th International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in July 1952 held in Toronto, Canada, during which time resolutions No. 18 and 28 were adopted related to the prisoners of war and humanitarian assistance to the civilian population of Korea during the Korean War. 
 
 
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Korean National Red Cross (KNRC) provided humanitarian assistance to victims of the Korean War (1950-1953), including prisoners of war and civilians, based on the Geneva Conventions.
The ICRC carried out more than 160 visits to prisoners of war camps, the military hospitals and the transit detention facilities and distributed relief supplies. KNRC provided care at 10 Red Cross hospitals throughout the country.
 

BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

 
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee. 
 

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