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Korean War POW/MIAs

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American POW/MIAs: Korean War Personnel Accounting


Current numbers


According to the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), there are approximately 7954 Korean War POW/MIAs “unaccounted for,”[i] a term used to describe U.S. military “personnel whose person or remains are not recovered or otherwise accounted for following hostile action.”[ii] This number is steadily decreasing as remains already recovered are identified. The U.S. military estimates that 5,500 of these servicemen were buried in The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name of North Korea.[iii] 




During the 1950s, under the terms of the Armistice Agreement,[iv] the DPRK returned over 4,000 sets of remains to the United Nations Command, primarily during “Operation Glory” in 1954.[v]  Eventually 867 remains were declared “unknown” and were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii, known as “The Punch Bowl.” One set of remains was later transferred to Arlington Cemetery and interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  At the close of Operation Glory there were 8,100 unaccounted for U.S. military personnel. 


Figures regarding un-repatriated prisoners of war (POWs) are difficult to pin down.  Negotiating the exchange of POWs was a central part of Armistice negotiations. In 1951 the North Koreans and Chinese reported that they were holding 3,198 Americans captive, below U.S. expectations given the total number of personnel missing in action.[vi] Sick and wounded prisoners were eventually exchanged in April and May 1953, including 149 Americans. A further 3,313 Americans were released in August 1953. At the time, Gen. Mark Clark, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, believed more American prisoners remained under North Korean and Chinese control.[vii]  Reports surfaced that some POWs were transferred to China and the Soviet Union for questioning.[viii] At a 1992 Senate hearing, one researcher testified that fewer than 100 POWs were transferred to China and the Soviet Union.[ix] At that same hearing a former National Security Council staffer testified that he had told President Eisenhower that over 900 POWS and as many as 1200 American POWs had been transported to the Soviet Union.[x]  According to this testimony, Eisenhower accepted advice not to publicize the transfer of POWs, both to spare the families pain and to avoid a call for a resumption of military action. Documents declassified in 1996 indicate that the Pentagon was aware of more than 900 POWs alive in December 1953.[xi]


Remains Recovery and Identification


Since 1982, 650-675 remains have been repatriated or disinterred.[xii]  Between 1990 and 1994, the DPRK turned over to the United States 208 boxes of remains recovered by the DPRK in unilateral operations.  Known colloquially as the “K208,” these boxed contained co-mingled remains and personal effects. DPMO has estimated that these boxes contain from 400-450 remains.[xiii]  The commingling and condition of the K208 remains makes identification very challenging. The pace of the identification of recovered remains is a key concern for Korea War veterans, family members and some elected officials in Congress.   The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 mandates providing “sufficient resources to ensure that at least 200 missing persons are accounted for under the program annually by 2015.” [xiv]  New techniques and technology have increased the rate of identification of remains from two a month to about eight a month.[xv] Recent op-eds and information requests to the Congressional Research Service demonstrate continued congressional interest and concern.[xvi]


Joint Field Activities and Archival Research


DPMO observed that “difficulties [in identifying K208 remains] underscored clearly the need for joint field activities in which U.S. on-scene expertise would guide the recovery process and improve the identification results.” [xvii] During joint field activities U.S. personnel can work with witnesses to pinpoint crash or battle details and burial locations.  In addition, Chinese and former Soviet Union archives may contain information on the fate of POWs transferred from the DPRK.


South Korea Although DPMO characterizes recovery operations in South Korean battlefields from 1951 to 1956 as “extremely thorough” [xviii] reports of possible U.S. remains still occur; recovery missions at times result in discovery of remains or personal effects.[xix] DPMO states that “approximately 950 remains are located in South Korea and fewer than 20 are known to be in China;” 20 sets of remains have been recovered in South Korea and one each in China and Japan.[xx]


North Korea In 1992 progress in recovering American military personnel remains was included as one of the pre-conditions of normalizing U.S.-DPRK relations. [xxi] The two countries signed an agreement on remains recovery missions in 1993.[xxii] There were 33 Joint DPRK-US investigations conducted between1996-2005;[xxiii] approximately 220 sets of remains were recovered.[xxiv] Missions were suspended in 2005, officially because of the concerns regarding the safety of U.S. troops. [xxv] Some observers speculated that there was also concern about U.S. payments made for expenses related to recovery operations at a time when the United States was trying to limit North Korea’s access to cash.[xxvi]


In January 2010, the DPRK proposed resuming joint recovery missions.[xxvii] The United States made no public response until August 2011, when the Obama administration announced that it had suggested resuming dialogue on the issue.[xxviii] In October 2011, Robert Newberry, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW and Missing Personnel, met with his North Korean counterpart in Bangkok to discuss the resumption of remains recovery operations in the DPRK. These missions were scheduled to resume in April 2012; however, following the March North Korean announcement of a planned satellite launch, which the U.S. said violated the Leap Day Agreement negotiated the previous month, the U.S. announced that the mission had been cancelled. The Defense Department also indicated that North Korea, citing U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as its reason, had yet to implement procedures negotiated in October.[xxix]


China The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) has conducted recovery operations in China involving aircraft crash sites from World War II, Korean War, and the Cold War, and these missions continue today.[xxx] As noted above, it is believed that Russian and Chinese archives contain information about Korean War POWs.In February 2008, DPMO and the Archives Department of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) signed an agreement in which Chinese archivists would review classified documents on U.S. POW/MIAs from the Korean War, and provide relevant information to the U.S. While progress under this agreement has been slow, it has nonetheless yielded some new information.[xxxi] The agreement was renewed for three years in May 2012.


Russia The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, established in 1992, “Serves as a forum through which both nations seek to determine the fate of their missing servicemen.”[xxxii]  In 2006, the Commission began to languish, with Russia disbanding their side of the Commission and suspending U.S. archival access. However, U.S. researchers were allowed back into Russian military archives in 2010, and the Russian government established a reconstituted Commission the next year.[xxxiii]


Last Updated July 3, 2012. This Issue Brief is currently under revision.

[i]DPMO “Summary Statistics as of June 28, 2012” accessed on July 3, 2012.  (

[ii] “Acronyms Used in POW-MIA Accounting Efforts”

[iii] Wan, William. “North Korea to discuss recovery of POW remains.”  Washington Post, August 19, 2011.  Accessed at

[iv] The Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. For the text, see here:

[v]"Operation Glory: Condensed from Graves Registration Division Korean Communications Zone (KCOMZ) Historical Summary July-December 1954," accessed at

[vi] Kaufman, Burton I. The Korean Conflict, Greenwood Press:  Westport, CT: 1999. pp. 59-68.

[vii] “Korea: Big Switch,” Time Magazine. August 17, 1953.  Accessed on October 4, 2011 at,9171,858160-2,00.html.

[viii] For example, a partially redacted CIA “Information Report” from September 1952 says that Korean and American POWs transited through specially constructed camps in the Soviet Union.  According to the report, American Korean War POWs were in camps in Molotov, the town of Gubakah, and the industrial regions of Kuymna and Chermos. This information predates the exchange of prisoners.

[ix] Hearings before the Senate Committee on POW/MIA Affairs United States Senate Second Session on Col War, Korea, WWII POWs. November 10 and 11, 1992. Questions and Answer session with Dr. Paul Cole,  RAND. P. 101

[x] Hearings before the Senate Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, November 10 and 11, 1992, op cited. Testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Coroso, USA, Ret. National Security Council Staff, Eisenhower Administration.   P. 126.  

[xi] Philip Shenon,  “U.S. Knew in 1953 North Koreans Held American P.O.W.'s.” The New York Times, September 17, 1996.  Accessed on August 9, 2011 at  For maps of POW camp locations, POW marches, etc.  see DPMO’s “Research and Analysis” power point presentation,  especially slides 12 and 21-26.

[xii] See “Operation Glory,” op. cited.

[xiii] Henning, Charles. Congressional Research Service Letter to Sen. Richard Lugar “Korean War Missing in Action,” dated September 27, 2011. Accessed at

[xv] Charles Henning 2011 op. cited. p. 3.

[xvi] See Sen. John Kerry, “North Korea: The Land of Lousy Options.”  June 26, 2011. Los Angeles Times.  Senator Richard Lugar’s August 2011 letter to the Congressional Research Services ( resulted in the most up-to-date information released regarding identification of remains already recovered. (See Charles Henning 2011, op. cited.)

[xvii]“Korean War Accounting,”

[xviii] Korean War Accounting (Ibid).

[xix] Korean War Accounting (Ibid). 

[xx] “Progress on Korean War Personnel Accounting,”  Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office Fact Sheet, accessed on June 22, 2012 at <>

[xxi] Quinones, C. Kenneth. “The U.S.-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework and the U.S. Army’s Return to North Korea.”  pp. 3, 11.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Chanlett-Avery, Emma.  “U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation R41259.”  Congressional Research Service Report.  June 18, 2011. P. 18.

[xxiv] Charles Henning, September 27, 2011, op.cited.

[xxv] See the official statement,  and “U.S. Halts Search for its War Dead in North Korea.”  May 26, 2005.

[xxvi] Demick, Barbara. “U.S. May Be Trying to Isolate North Korea.” The L.A. Times. May 28, 2005.

[xxvii] Henning, Charles A. POWs and MIAs: Status and Accounting Issues CRS Report L33452 June 1, 2006. P. 9

[xxviii] Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. and North Korea May Discuss Recovering Remains of Americans,” New York Times, August 9, 2011. Accessed at

[xxix] Jim Garamone, “U.S. Suspends MIA Search in North Korea,” American Forces Press Service, March 21, 2012. Accessed at <>

[xxx] Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, “Personnel Accounting Progress in China,”  <>

[xxxi] Shirley A. Kan, “U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, February 10, 2012, pp. 41-43.

[xxxii] United States-Russia Joint Commission on POWs and MIAs and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office Joint Commission Support Division Archival Documents Databases,

[xxxiii] “Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office Joint Commission Support Directorate Fact Sheet,” <>