Prisoners of War

The taking of prisoners of war and their treatment has varied a great deal historically...

Some armies have refused to take prisoners and executed all who fell into their hands. Other armies accept prisoners but do not treat them well. A third and rarer case is when prisoners are taken, and are well treated during their captivity. During the Korean War prisoners were usually accepted, but their treatment differed widely.

A body of international agreements, called the Geneva conventions, covers the treatment of the victims of war. The third convention of 1929 dealt in particular with prisoners of war and the fourth was signed by 194 countries in the year before the Korean War began. However, not all the major combatants in Korea were signatories to the 1949 Geneva Convention. During the first North Korean offensive in 1950 some United Nations Command (UNC) prisoners were treated well; there was adequate food and some medical treatment. Occasionally, after a crude program of indoctrination, prisoners were released. Three captured Australians were fortunate to be in this category. Taken when their patrol was surrounded they were subject to political lectures but released after a few days.

As the war continued the communist treatment of prisoners became harsher. Many suffered starvation and acts of brutality, including execution. Thousands of prisoners of war died. North Korean treatment of South Korean prisoners was particularly harsh.

The exchange of prisoners was a bone of contention once negotiations to end the war began. There were disputes about how many prisoners each side was holding. Of 188,000 the communists claimed were missing just 81,000 were returned at the end of the war. Perhaps 30,000 of the rest were South Koreans forced to join the North Korean army. Others were missing in action and some were the 22,600 prisoners who refused to return to their own country. A few had died in prison riots – on Koje island in 1952 89 prisoners were shot by guards. Another 38,000 were prisoners held by the UNC who were later reclassified as civilian internees.

The UNC believed there might be as many as 65,000 UNC personnel in communist captivity but only 13,000 were returned. At least 12,000 died in captivity. The fate of the rest is unclear. In 2007 the South Korean Government stated that what happened to 19,409 of its soldiers had still not been confirmed.

It is impossible to be precise about the total prisoner of war numbers for the Korean War. The UNC took at least 182,000 prisoners, including those later reclassified as civilians and South Koreans forced to serve North Korea. The Chinese and North Koreans probably captured about 62,000 prisoners of war, mostly South Koreans.

Photo of RAAR pilots Drummond and Thomson still wearing their blue prisoner of war uniforms

Panmunjom, Korea, 1 September 1953. RAAF Pilot Officers Vance Drummond (left) and Bruce Thomson (right) at Freedom Village after their release from captivity. They are still wearing their blue prisoner of war uniforms. [AWM JK0863]


Last updated: 10 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Prisoners of War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/korean-war-1950-1953/events/prisoners-war
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