GEOJE ISLAND, South Korea — The POW Camp Park on Geoje Island was opened in 1951 to accommodate Chinese and North Korean invaders who were captured during the Korean War. Most of the park has been recreated at the foot of Mt. Gyeryongsan behind barbed wire fences in the midst of the pine trees, tall apartment buildings and commercial areas of an island that was only recently developed.
At the time of the war, Geoje Island was a perfect choice for a prisoner of war (POW) camp, as it was secluded enough from the mainland to discourage escape. The designers made it even more difficult to flee by wedging it between two of the island’s largest mountains.
With over 170,000 (20,000 Chines and 150prisoners streaming through the doors during a three year period, the camp became a melting pot of different ideologies and mixed problems. Out of a total of 170,000 prisoners of war, 20,000 were from China and 150,000 were from North Korea. The camp was closed upon the signing of the 1953 armistice which ended the war. Remains of the war, such as tanks, trucks and other relics are on exhibit here.
The camp is a chance to see a component of war that often goes unrecognized; the lives of those who are captured while fighting for their cause. As you tour the giant complex, you gain an understanding of POW life and the problems faced by prisoners and their captors. through exhibits illustrating fighting, capture, surrender and insurrection.
Within the park’s halls of information, two main themes present themselves. The first is the constant reiteration that the prisoners were treated very well and were allotted a certain autonomy and self-regulation in their everyday lives at the camp — the exhibits go to great lengths to demonstrate that the treatment of captives was aligned perfectly with the accords of the Geneva Convention. The second, more surprising theme was the ideological separation present among the camp’s prisoners.
The Hall of POW’s Lives contains several photos and captions of the prisoners “enjoying” various freedoms and is perhaps part of an effort by the South Koreans to separate themselves from the brutality associated with the North’s treatment of POWs. Several of these liberties included job training, sewing time, performing musical plays, regular haircuts, religious services, medical care, language lessons, free time and meals that were supposedly better than those eaten by combatant South Korean soldiers. To what extent the captives enjoyed these activities is up to the visitor to decide, although it is hard to make a judgment based on a handful of photographs.
Despite sharing these leisure activities, some factions developed a bitter rivalry. Though one might assume that the prisoners in a POW camp would align themselves by ethnicity or nationality, prisoners here divided themselves instead along political lines: communists and anti-communists. Each side even formed their own organizations; the communists became known as the “Liberation Alliance,” while the anti-communists became the “Korean Young Men’s Anti-Communist Body.”
Instead of rioting or rebelling against their captors, this division would be the root cause of bloody fighting, massacres and riots among the prisoners themselves. It is estimated that these feuds and infighting caused the deaths of around 2,000 prisoners. This intense internal quarreling would be one of the main obstacles prison guards faced in maintaining order in the camp. The “Dark Ride Show” exhibit recreated the scene of one of the many bloody riots that took place in the camp.
This information also brings about the more interesting idea that most of those soldiers fighting on the side of North Korea did not necessarily advocate for a Communist government.
This is a theme that seems to repeat itself in wars fought in Asia to combat the spread of Communism. It is the same problem that would surface at the end of the Vietnam War. The Communist Party “helped” those rebelling against the Southern Vietnamese government and U.S. troops, but would later implement Communist control over of all of Vietnam. This was not the desire of many of those who fought for the liberation of Vietnam. This Communist takeover sent many who were caught in the middle of an ideological conflict to reeducation camps, and others fleeing the country to seek asylum in the same countries they had fought against.
Just like the Vietnamese, who did not want either the government they started with or the one they got in the end, North Koreans were, and still are, subjected to the rule of a dictator, which likely wasn’t the answer they were fighting for. As it did this the Vietnamese, this problem has prompted more and more North Koreans to escape their country and seek asylum each year.
The different ideologies among the North Korean and Chinese prisoners would also play a role in their future after the signing of the armistice in 1953. The issue of where the prisoners would go after their release was a matter of intense discussion between North and South Korea, and there were several attempts to persuade prisoners to return to their home country. The communists advocated for “forced repatriation,” while anti-communists were against it, thus separating them even more. Although most of the prisoners, mainly the anti-communists, remained in South Korea to start a new life, some were still returned to North Korea to rebuild whatever life still remained.
The POW Camp Park brings about one final and important thought: taking into account all the information and pictures of this by-product of war , the reality of conflict becomes clearer. The camp helps paint a picture of what another war among the Koreas would do to both sides and brings to mind the current tensions between North and South Korea. Most of all, it leaves you hoping that whatever direction today’s problems lead, they will lead us in a different direction than the path through the POW camp.
For more information on getting to the POW Camp go here.