Six months after the Korean war ended in 1953, the Eisenhower administration had evidence that North Korea failed to release more than 900 prisoners of war, some of whom may have been subjected to germ warfare experiments in a shadowy Czech-built hospital, according to newly declassified documents and congressional testimony Tuesday.
A Pentagon memo, dated Dec. 22, 1953, said 610 Army troops and more than 300 Air Force personnel were on lists of prisoners who were supposed to be returned when the armistice took effect in July of that year. But, the memo said, they “just disappeared.”
The information, disclosed at a congressional hearing Tuesday presided over by Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., an outspoken Capitol Hill advocate of POW and MIA causes, seems likely to reopen a decades-long controversy over Korean War prisoners.
North Korea has denied it held any U.S. prisoners after the war ended and the Pentagon generally has discounted reports that Americans are still held there.
But dedicated skeptics through the years have insisted that North Korean and U.S. officials are lying to avoid a thorny issue that would prove embarrassing to both sides.
The memo, obtained by the House National Security military personnel subcommittee from the Eisenhower presidential library, is a summary of a telephone call between an unidentified Pentagon official and then Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens.
It describes a discrepancy between the lists of prisoners that North Korea said it held and those it eventually released. But it mentions no further proof that the prisoners were still alive.
Other evidence that prisoners were left behind came in testimony Tuesday by retired Col. Philip Corso, an Army intelligence officer who was in Korea during the prisoner exchanges and who later served on the Eisenhower White House staff.
He told the committee that he knew at least 500 sick and wounded U.S. prisoners were within 10 miles of an exchange point but were never released. He said other reports indicated 900-1,200 POWs were sent from North Korea to the Soviet Union and were never heard from again.
The newly released documents indicate the Eisenhower administration was concerned about the fate of POWs in North Korea and the Soviet Union but was unwilling to provoke a confrontation with the nuclear-armed Kremlin.