Other prisoners

The first year of the Korean War saw four great military disasters befall the armies on either side...

It was in this period when the great majority of prisoners of war were taken as armies fell back disorganised after defeat in battle. North Korea, for instance, lost 135,000 of 150,000 captured in the entire war, in the two months when the army disintegrated as it fled north in late 1950.

In the final two years of static warfare there were fewer big battles and less prisoners were taken. Both sides did sometimes send a 'body-snatching party' at night into the other's trenches to obtain a prisoner for interrogation. Thus the majority of prisoners taken were confined for two or three years. Prisoners of war were exchanged in Operation Little Switch in April 1953, before the war ended. The communists repatriated 684 United Nations Command (UNC) personnel in exchange for 1,030 Chinese, 5,194 North Koreans and 446 civilians. The issue of the forced repatriation of prisoners may have prolonged the war. The UNC insisted that no prisoner of war should be forced to return against their will. The communist negotiators refused to agree until early in 1953 after which the remaining issues in the way of a ceasefire were rapidly sorted out.

The final exchange of prisoners was Operation Big Switch, from August to December 1953. Like Little Switch it was marked by controversy over voluntary repatriation and allegations of the brainwashing and torture of UNC prisoners by the communists. The issue of forced repatriation of prisoners proved the major stumbling block to peace. It was agreed that a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), chaired by India, would take responsibility for prisoners who had indicated a desire to remain with their captors. They were given 90 days to decide if they would stay or go. Some 22,600 communist prisoners of war opted not to return to their homelands. One soldier from Britain, 21 Americans and 325 South Koreans chose to remain in North Korea.

Since the Korean War all countries except North Korea have issued reasonably reliable estimates of the number of enemy they captured and the number of their own soldiers missing. Some of the missing were killed in battle and some became prisoners but in thousands of cases it is not known which occurred. Many died in prison camps in North Korea. For these reasons the following figures cannot be regarded as definitive.

Number of uniformed personnel from each nation captured by the enemy
China 21,440
North Korea 150,000
British Commonwealth including Australia 1036
South Korea 41,971
United States of America 7433
Other United Nations Command forces 308

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Other prisoners, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 19 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/korean-war-1950-1953/events/prisoners-war/other-prisoners
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