The political was personal: Shifting images of 76 Korean POW s who went to neutral nations

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Under the terms of the Korean War armistice, prisoners of war (pow s) could reject repatriation. The vast majority of non-repatriates went to either of the Koreas, China, or Taiwan. But a small group consisting of 76 Korean and twelve Chinese pow s exercised their option to go to neutral nations instead. This article examines how South Korean discourse about these outlier pow s shifted over the decades. An early assumption was that they had made a principled, ideological decision to reject both blocs of a global Cold War. But their choice of neutral countries was a more personal than ideological one. Their anti-communism appeared muted, since they also eschewed the other side. This interpretation contained little direct knowledge of the pow s themselves; it owed more to how the South Korean public saw the war that devastated their peninsula. There also was the influence of “The Square” in the Korean intellectual society and the mass media in their understanding of these Korean prisoners. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, South Koreans became more confident about the rivalry with North Korea. This led to a reengagement with the memory of the pow s who had spurned both Koreas, making rejection of Communist North Korea more convincing and their refusal to remain in South Korea was less problematic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-257
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of American-East Asian Relations
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2020


  • India
  • Korean armistice
  • Korean war
  • Latin America
  • Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission
  • North Korea
  • Prisoners of war
  • Repatriation
  • South Korea
  • War memory
  • “The Square”


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