Personal files of Korean War orphans and American and British POWs

Dr. Joanna Hosaniak

Traces of unknown human histories.  
Personal files of Korean War orphans residing in Poland and of American and British Prisoners of Korean War in the Polish Secret Apparatus Documentation of the 1950s

In 2017, a group of North Korean university students resettling in South Korea participated in a training program on transitional justice in Poland organized by Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) with the assistance of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). This program also included visits to Auschwitz concentration camp and Kraków (Cracow). Our Polish guide there, an energetic old lady, greeted the North Korean students in the Korean language. She explained that when she became an orphan during WWII in Poland, she was sent to an orphanage in Kraków, where she shared a room with some of the Korean War orphans. She was quick to recall Korean words she had learned many decades ago.

Aside from propaganda material in Polish communist media and chronicles of the time emphasizing “brotherly help”, the presence of a large group of Korean War orphans in Poland was largely kept a secret for decades and then forgotten, until a Polish radio journalist and author, Jolanta Krysowata, discovered the old grave of a 13-year-old girl with the Korean name Kim Ki Dok in the cemetery in Wrocław. She began an investigation reaching out to those who were assigned to Korean children as caregivers, medical personnel and teachers, slowly uncovering facts that became a well-known film documentary and a book.

A recent South Korean film documentary by Sang-mi Chu, titled “The Children gone to Poland”, complements Krysowata’s investigation, giving a contemporary twist to the topic of Korean orphans sent to Poland during the Korean War by integrating their narrative with that of the young generation of North Korean orphans who escaped inhumane conditions in North Korea and are currently resettling in South Korea. One of them joins Chu to follow in the footsteps of the first North Korean orphans in Płakowice, Lower Silesia in Poland, where according to Krysowata the largest group of 1,270 North Korean children lived in a special boarding school in seclusion from the general public. The majority of orphans have so far been traced to have lived in a few areas in Lower Silesia (Płakowice, Szklarska Poręba, Barda) with some in the public orphanages in the suburbs of Warsaw (Świder, Otwock, Falenica). Total numbers given vary from 1500 to 1720 children depending on the sources. It has been established that the first small group of these children and youth, aged from 7 to 15 years old, arrived in Poland in 1951. A later group with accompanying North Korean staff arrived mostly in 1953. Upon Kim Il Sung’s order the last group had to be returned to North Korea in 1959.

During the course of our project, our in-depth inquiry into IPN Archives in several cities with IPN branches returned about 100 files of young Koreans with identifiers from Cracow IPN. The files begin in 1952 and cover the period to 1957 at the latest. According to their data, the youngest were born in 1940, and the oldest in 1933, and were aged 12 to 19 years old in 1952. In this group of files, there are also a few Koreans in their 20s. Even though the files come from Kraków, some of them give residence addresses in Kraków, some in Chrzanów (a city near Kraków), and some in Łódź.

Individual registration file of a North Korean orphan in Poland from the group sent by Kim Il Sung in 1951. They were issued North Korean IDs (passports) only in 1954 and 1955 by the DPRK Embassy in Warsaw.

Among these individual files is also a group of registration files of children who arrived in Poland in 1951 – this has so far been the least known group and no information has been available on them. The individual files report a border crossing date at Terespol (a border city with Belarus) on 22 and 23 November 1951. Interestingly, they were only first registered in 1954 and 1955 by the DPRK Embassy in Warsaw, which issued their passports at the same time. However, several registration forms in this group mention that the children had been residing in Poland since 1951 without registration. Some registrations give information that the children stayed in Warsaw and Świder, or in Ciechanów and Chrzanów between 1951 and 1954. Their first registration was conducted in Kraków, Łódź, or Chrzanów.

It is difficult to know who these children were. The files often mention that the students were orphaned, but it seems that this earliest group could have also included children of guerilla soldiers, as a few of the children mention their birthplace as Kitai (Russian word for China) but state their nationality at birth as Korean. Kim Il Sung operated an anti-Japanese guerilla division in Manchuria in the 1930s before being jailed and later hand-picked by Beria to be trained in the Soviet Red Army. In one of these “China-born” children’s files, the annotation says that the child’s parents fell in military operations. However, a few other files in this group mention the child’s place of origin as Kangwon Province, currently divided between North and South Korea, and have annotations such as “the mother was killed during bombardment.” Yet, there are also students in this group who remember only their province or town of origin, but do not remember the names of one or both parents, or their home address in Korea.

According to these IPN files, another group of students arrived in Poland in September 1953. It is a group of 15- and 16-year-old boys whose files mention group registration conducted by MO Citizens’ Militia in Myślenice, a city near Kraków. This group was sent then to Kraków to enroll in a Vocational Technical High School for Metallurgy Studies in Nowa Huta.

There are also files of adult students who were issued their passports in July 1953 or in 1954 in DPRK. This is a group of much older students who were in their early 20s and were sent to study in Poland (their registrations come from Warsaw and Łódź). Several of these files include males in uniform with shoulder boards, or in well-appointed suits sometimes with medals. This group was issued passports in Pyongyang while the Armistice negotiations were coming to an end or soon after the end of the Korean War. This indicates that these were hand-picked individuals, probably military and police personnel, who were sent for special training by North Korea. Another set of similar files is related to adult individuals who arrived in January 1952 and were registered in Kraków. They include annotations such as “served in the Army between 1950-1951”. Unlike the “orphans files”, this group does not indicate which studies they were going to undertake, but rather mention Special Scholarship of the Minister of Higher Education.

So far, no other research seems to mention Korean orphans in Kraków or nearby cities, and this finding would correspond to the story mentioned in the beginning of the article. It is obvious from these documents that there were groups of young individuals sent to Poland between 1951 and 1953 and they resided in various areas that have not yet been researched, such as Kraków, Chrzanów, Myślenice, Łódź, or Ciechanów.

Whether these comprise a proportion of the established numbers or form yet more unknown groups sent to Poland, indicating a larger number of Korean children and youth than established, remains to be researched further. As more pieces of documentation are uncovered in various archives, including in communist newspapers from that time, hopefully our findings will also contribute to expanding research aimed at uncovering the truth.

However, as this was a special political project, persons who worked with the youth were under oath preventing them from releasing information about the youth to the public. As such, documentation on these youths is not available in the public archives in local cities for example. For that reason, the index of Korean names in the communist security apparatus files is not a surprise, as foreigners were of interest of the internal organs of secret police at a minimum for the purpose of registration of foreign citizens living in their area.

As such, the finding has also a unique value, as it gives us the names of these individuals, their birth data, and place of origin in North Korea. Unfortunately, the names were written in Polish and unless the documents give signatures in Korean, there are many possibilities as to how the name could have been written in Korean script. As such, the English index retains the Polish alphabetization to avoid further errors. There are a few cases where place of birth is given as South Korea – in some instances South Korean towns are mentioned such as Kyungju, but in other cases it is not clear whether this happened by mistake, or because the civilian population escaping war was constantly moving between Northern and Southern parts of the Peninsula without knowing which side would prevail and thus using North and South Korea interchangeably. After all, these were probably very confused young people at the time when they were taken by the North Korean Army. At this point, it would also be worthwhile to reaffirm Krysowata’s warning in her interview for the Korean documentary that not all of the youth may have been “North Koreans,” as the North Korean communist secret apparatus during the War was gathering individuals around the Peninsula as the theatre of war advanced.

The North Korean regime is known for its large-scale abductions of civilians during the early stages of the Korean War. Approximately a hundred thousand South Korean nationals were purposefully targeted by the communist secret apparatus at their homes or workplaces. Among them were many nurses, doctors, policemen, and businessmen – individuals who had skills useful to North Korea. They are still unaccounted for, and this intentional abduction of civilians committed by North Korean leadership was classified as a crime against humanity in the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK in 2014.

As such, the questions should be asked: who were these youths? How were they taken by the North Korean Army, what was the original purpose of this operation, and what has happened to them after their return from Poland to North Korea? In recent years, several articles in Poland published old letters written by some of the youth addressed to their Polish caretakers and sent from North Korea following their return. In some of these letters, the youth expressed a wish to come back to Poland and a few reportedly tried to do so by attempting to escape North Korea: “My dear Dad, I thought long about Poland and thought of escaping. Please do not be mad at me, Dad. Just prepare Merry Christmas for me. I will not have happy holidays here. Please do not tell this to anyone, Dad, but after we returned, times were tough. We had to sit and they were shouting at us for long 10 days. Then the police took us back to school and there again, they were shouting at us. I study to be sent to a coal mine now.” Some of the caretakers in Poland did not encourage communication, worried about the possible fate of these children in the height of communist surveillance at the time. Then around 1962 the letters stopped coming from North Korea. A few of the older youths would have surely joined the communist ranks, whether for espionage or translation purposes. Some of the youth who studied at vocational schools in Poland were not allowed to choose a vocation, but at the demand of DPRK Embassy were directed to learn skills in a limited range of occupations decided by the North Korean side. In the IPN files, the youngest group of boys and girls are mentioned to be enrolled in the Vocational Technical High School for Metallurgy Studies and in the Vocational Technical High School for Mechanical Studies. They, too, might have been directed to continue their vocation after their return to North Korea. But as the above letter illustrates, many could have been sent to the coal mines.

In the early years after the War, North Korea primarily directed to the mines all individuals whose political background or behavior was deemed disloyal to the regime. Among them were thousands of South Korean prisoners of war who were directed to major coal mines in North Korea with restrictions on movement. They were never allowed to return to South Korea. We know of their fate from personal interviews (including by the author) with the very few who, with great desperation arising from old age, wished to see their hometown before death and escaped in recent years back to South Korea. They decided to escape when they lost all hope after realizing that consecutive South Korean Presidents did not ask for their release during the North-South Summits.

Was the fate of the children largely similar to that of the abducted civilians and South Korean POWs? After all, they were an easy target for the North Korean secret service when war killed or dispersed their families. By the arbitrary decision of Kim Il Sung and Stalin, like thousands of abducted South Korean civilians, these young lives became part of a larger political plan, were gathered and sent to be educated and taken care of until they were able to join possibly the war or postwar efforts. After all, at the time of their departure, the ending of the war was yet unknown to either side.

There is a great probability that these children fitted into the larger plan at the time, which was to mobilize the whole European communist bloc to assist in Korean War efforts not only by educating and preparing the youth, but also for possible military support in the Korean War. Poland never officially joined the War. However, Poland’s Minister of Defence at the time established a secret “Unit 2000” in June 1952 for the purpose of training military and diplomatic personnel to be sent to Korea. When in 1953 it became known that the Armistice would be signed, this unit was re-directed to be assigned as the staff of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. It was stationed in Andung (now Dandong) and crossed the Yalu River on the day of the signing of the Korean Armistice.

According to IPN historians, this unit was established by the initiative of Stalin who never officially joined the Korean War but covertly exercised control over other states to influence it. One of his methods was through the civilian and military communist secret apparatuses of other countries, which were in subordinate positions to Soviet authorities. At this early stage when communism was still being implemented, these countries often had Soviet generals and other personnel attached to their national communist secret service. In fact, Konstanty Rokossowski, who by Stalin’s order became Polish Minister of Defence in 1949 and created this secret Unit 2000 in 1952, was a Marshal of the USSR Red Army and one of the most prominent commanders in WWII. He returned to the Soviet Union after being removed from Poland in 1956.

This subordinate position of Poland (and North Korea) to Soviet Union authorities can be seen in reports of the Polish communist secret apparatus officers deployed to Korea during the Korean War. The earliest documents are dated to 1950 when the Polish apparatus tried to establish its presence in Korea (originally officers were stationed in Beijing and travelled back and forth to North Korea). Several of these files mention consultations with both Soviet and Chinese generals before missions in Korea could be deployed. They later describe that while Soviet and Chinese Generals were managing affairs directly in Pyongyang during the Korean War, other European communist countries’ military apparatus posts were only allowed to be stationed outside Pyongyang and could not frequently travel to Pyongyang because it required special permission by Kim Il Sung. Poland’s Embassy and Poland’s Military Attaché was initially based in Manpo on the North Korean-Chinese border together with the Mongolian Embassy, as well as the Hungarian and Czech Chargés d’Affaires which operated from there.

Despite the fact that Poland was a greatly impoverished country due to being largely destroyed by the recent World War II, some of the 1950s files also mention fundraising for the Korean War conflict conducted by the military secret police in Poland. They also report a transfer of 82 train wagons of unidentified materials to Kim Il Sung in May 1951.

Yet, probably some of the most interesting documents of the Korean War period are files of another group of individuals – the American and British prisoners of war (POWs). These files have documents of each soldier with an individual photo attached, prepared by the North Korean and Chinese secret apparatus. The original files are handwritten in Chinese and Korean by those officers who interviewed the prisoners and then machine typed from Korean to Russian probably because of the presence of the Soviet apparatus, but also because Russian was an official language of the communist secret service. A list in English of all prisoners of war was attached to them before the files were handed by the North Korean secret apparatus to the Polish military apparatus stationed in North Korea.

The interview card and personal file on each US and British prisoner of war prepared by North Korean and Chinese Secret Service and the excerpt of the list of all prisoners of Polish origin transferred to Polish Communist Secret Service.

In another report, a Polish military security officer describes an attachment of a confidential Chinese report on how to conduct psychological manipulation among prisoners of war to recruit them for the military effort, or for future collaboration with the communist security service upon their release and return to home country. Such efforts mostly targeted soldiers of the lower ranks or lower social classes.

In the IPN file, all of the American and British prisoners of war were of Polish origin with one exception of a soldier of Czech origin, indicating that it was apparently not only the Polish secret apparatus receiving these individual files. All had parents who emigrated from Poland and often describe the material or class status of the soldier or his family. It is clear that the communist secret service was selectively targeting persons of workers’ or farmers’ background. The whole suite of documentation is dated to 1952. When the Repatriation Commission began its work in 1953, based on our further research, these soldiers were then placed on the list of repatriated soldiers.

Even though we do not know the purpose of this file transfer from the North Korean secret apparatus to its Polish counterpart, their existence illustrates one common feature of the communist secret apparatus in each country: lack of respect for the value of human life. An individual was just a note in the file, and a potential tool caught in the political and security apparatus of brutal regimes.

I would like to finish this article with an appeal. For the last 15 years while conducting North Korean human rights advocacy and interviewing hundreds of North Korean victims, I have been asking questions about any knowledge of relatives or other known persons who could have been sent as North Korean orphans to Poland. So far, I have met only one person who had some knowledge. If any of the individuals mentioned in this research (both orphans and POWs), or relatives of these individuals would like to tell their story, or would like assistance in accessing their files, I request you to contact me.