POW Deaths During the Korean War

February 28, 2011

I planned another post for this spot but decided to write about UN POW deaths during the Korean War since that topic came up at the end of Part 7 of this documentary summarizing the Korean War.

It mentions how 87% of POW’s captured by the People’s Liberation Army and/or North Korean troops during the war died in captivity.  It doesn’t explain how.

The lack of context may provide Sinophobes with ammunition to criticize China for the behavior of its troops during the Korean War.

In fact, while there was strong evidence that North Korean Troops executed UN POWs, “the Chinese rarely executed prisoners like their Korean counterparts (since) mass starvation and diseases swept through the Chinese POW camps during the winter of 1950-51. About 43 percent of all US POWs died during this period. The Chinese defended their actions by stating that all Chinese soldiers during this period were also suffering mass starvation and diseases due to the lack of competent logistics system.” Source: Wikipedia

Surviving UN POWs, however, dispute this claim. Click on the link to see what the POWs had to say but know that Mao ruled China from 1949 to 1976. Revolutionary Maoism died with him.

In 1951, the Western rules of war did not apply to China or North Korea. China wouldn’t join the United Nations until October 25, 1971 — twenty years later.  North Korea would become a member of the UN September 1991.

If you were to study the International Treaties on the Laws of War, you would discover that most were written in Geneva and the Hague. Source: Wikipedia

What I found interesting in this list was the 1938 League of Nations declaration for the “Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing from the Air in Case of War.”

During World War II, the US air forces killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Germany and Japan. Many of the bombs dropped were napalm (jellied gasoline) and the innocent were roasted including the elderly, women and children.

The Geneva Convention for the treatment of Prisoners of War was written in 1949, the year the Chinese Communists won the Civil War in China.

There is an old saying — the friend of my enemy is my enemy.

The United States has been an ally of the Nationalist Chinese since well before World War II and protected Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in Taiwan after 1949.

However, Chiang Kai-shek was a brutal dictator that ruled Taiwan with martial law and is responsible for the deaths of more than thirty thousand civilians there. Learn of the 2/28 Massacre in Taiwan.

Chinese history shows that since the time of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor (221 – 207 B.C.), the standard practice in war was to execute POWs because they were a burden that might lead to defeat.  An army that doesn’t’ have to feed and/or guard POWs is more effective at fighting and winning.  Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan knew this too.

While the behavior of PLA and North Korean troops when it came to POW’s was unacceptable by Western humanitarian standards, US forces are just as guilty when it came to killing innocent civilians. There are estimates that the US killed about two million civilians in Vietnam and left behind a horrible legacy due to the use of Agent Orange.

When it comes to war, both combatants are usually guilty of atrocities against POWs and/or civilians. However, the victor decides who is guilty of those crimes and the punishment.

The rules of war to use are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.