Photo Caption: The Colonel James Murray, Jr. USMC, and Colonel Chang Chun San, of the North Korean Communist Army, initial maps showing the north and south boundaries of the demarcation zone,during the Panmunjom cease fire talks.

After the Communist offensives in the spring of 1951, combat action subsided and the battle lines stabilized in the general vicinity of the 38th Parallel, where the fighting had begun. With the status quo restored in the main, each side could claim some measure of success. Prospects for a military decision, however, dissipated as the opponents dug in and fortified their positions in depth. Under these conditions, continued stalemate or a negotiated agreement became the main alternatives since major offensives would require a high cost in casualties to breech the new defensive lines.

The Communists had spurned or ignored earlier attempts to initiate negotiations, but on June 23, Jacob Malik, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations (U.N.), suggested that the belligerents discuss the possibilities of a cease-fire. The United States and its allies quickly instructed General Matthew B. Ridgway, the U.N. commander, to arrange a military settlement that would bring the fighting to a halt and reduce the heavy drain in manpower and funds. Since the Communists might not be ready to seek a permanent political settlement in Korea, the United States sought an agreement that would endure over an extended period of time. At the same time, Ridgway was told to avoid any discussions of political matters, such as a return to the 38th Parallel as a boundary, the seating of Communist China in the United Nations, or the future disposition of Taiwan.

The first contact with the Communists across the conference table came on July 8, when liaison officers met at Kaesong, the old capital of Korea, located just below the 38th Parallel and 35 miles northwest of Seoul. Two days later the plenary sessions began amid high hopes that the conflict would soon be brought to an end; there was no indication that it would take more than two years to reach an agreement on an armistice. But it was obvious even at the time that when the Chinese delegates sat down as equals before the U.N. Command (U.N.C.) representatives, the world power balance, at least in Asia, was for the foreseeable future profoundly changed. Certainly in this case, power for the Chinese had indeed “grown out of the barrel of a gun.”

To head the U.N. Command truce team, Ridgway selected his capable naval commander, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy. Together, they chose the other four members of the delegation: Army Major General Henry I. Hodes, Air Force Major General Laurence C. Craigie, Navy Rear Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, and Major General Paik Sun Yup of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army. All five men were military professionals and had little or no political or diplomatic experience.

Across the table, the Communists had assembled a formidable group of negotiators. Chief delegate and nominal leader was General Nam Il, chief of staff of the North Korean Army and vice premier of the Communist regime. Assisting him were four other officers with both political and military experience, including Major General Lee Sang Cho, chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau of the North Korean Army and a former vice minister of commerce, and Major General Hsieh Fang, chief of propaganda of the Northeast Military District of China. According to many U.N.C. observers, Hsieh directed the Communist truce operations at Kaesong.

Photo Caption: Conference Site at Kaesong, July 10, 1951, the day negotiations opened.

It took two weeks just to hammer out an agenda, as the Communists tried unsuccessfully to incorporate the restoration of the 38th Parallel and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Korea. When they met firm resistance from the U.N.C. delegation, they finally settled for consideration of four major topics: establishment of a military demarcation line and a demilitarized zone; arrangements for the setting up of a supervisory organization to make sure that the terms of the Armistice were carried out; disposition of prisoners of war (POWs); and recommendations to the concerned governments regarding follow-up actions after the truce was in operation. Each of these topics was assigned to a subcommittee so that negotiations could proceed concurrently rather than serially.

The U.N.C. team discovered at the outset that the Communists were hard bargainers, yet highly sensitive to matters of tradition, protocol and equality. Any effort or seeming effort by the U.N.C. delegation to demonstrate superiority of any kind was swiftly countered by the Communists, since the matter of preserving “face” was of major importance in the Orient. When the U.N.C. members brought in a small U.N.C. flag and stand to the meetings, the Communists responded with a larger flag and stand. The construction of modest sanitation facilities at the truce site for the U.N.C. staff was quickly followed by the erection of a larger facility for the Communists that was brightly painted and landscaped as well. Joy, the senior U.N.C. delegate, had a sedan to transport him to the conference building, the Communists imported a vehicle from the Soviet Union so that Nam could arrive in similar style.

As the meetings that followed the settlement of the agenda got underway, the U.N.C. delegation also found out that the Communists would use any tactic that would gain them an advantage. Bluster, rudeness and profanity were a familiar part of the Communists arsenal when they wished to hector the opposition and secure concessions. Since few of the U.N.C. staff members understood either Korean or Chinese, the rough words and insults lost much of their impact when they were later translated into English. On the other hand, the Communists could shift overnight from harsh, browbeating, name-calling attacks to quiet, reasonable and businesslike approaches when they had determined that they could secure no more concessions on an issue and were ready to settle the matter.

The U.N.C. team also discovered that the Communists were experienced and strong on substantive issues, but less rigid about procedural matters. In the latter area, the U.N.C. staff members found that the Communists would never accept any of their proposals in toto; they deliberately would insert an error into a proposed agreement for the Communists to find, confident that their counterparts would probably leave the rest of the text alone. The enemy staff members, on the other hand, were tough negotiators throughout the lengthy discussions and regarded any effort on the part of the U.N.C. team to reach quick compromises with suspicion. Every concession had to be matched by a demand for a similar Communist concession. The Communists understood and respected the principles of horse trading; gift horses were always looked in the mouth.

One favorite Communist technique was to let the U.N.C. make the first proposals. By outwaiting their opponents, the Communists could accept the portions favorable to their position and haggle for more. Eventually, when they saw that the U.N.C. would not yield further, they would bring forth their counter offer. In the debates that ensued, the Communists revealed a consistent pattern of response; as long as they continued to argue a point, the door was still open to trading, but when they refused to discuss the matter any further, they had arrived at their final position. The key attributes in dealing with the Communists, the U.N.C. delegation soon came to realize, were calmness, firmness and patience.

Shortly after the truce discussions began, charges of violations of the Kaesong Conference area surfaced and continued to hamper efforts to reach substantive agreements throughout the next two years. The first serious occurrence took place August 4, when a company of fully-armed Communist troops marched through the conference site and the U.N.C. delegation promptly suspended the negotiations for five days until assurances were received that there would be no further recurrence of such blatant violations. Shocked by the strong U.N.C. action and the attendant unfavorable publicity that it garnered in the world press, the Communists launched a flood of protests in the succeeding days and culminated their counteroffensive August 23. Claiming that a U.N.C. plane had bombed the conference site, they rejected the U.N.C. refutation of the charge and declared an indefinite suspension of the talks. Although the liaison officers continued to meet in the interim to discuss changing the site of the talks from Kaesong to Panmunjom, a village about five miles west of Kaesong, and rules and regulations that would reduce violations in the future, the plenary sessions did not resume until October.

In the meantime, the Communists had strengthened their forces and built up their military supplies in North Korea. With the possibility of an Armistice in the near future, there appeared to be little reason for the U.N.C. to mount offensives for objectives that might later have to be surrendered when a settlement was reached. But General James Van Fleet, the Eighth Army commander, became concerned that his troops had lost their edge during the early summer period of inactivity at the front and decided to carry out limited attacks to straighten out sags in the U.N.C.’s defensive lines, maintain pressure on the enemy, and keep his troops in combat condition.

In late July, Van Fleet mounted the first offensive action since the truce talks had started in the area known as the Punchbowl located about 20 miles northeast of the Hwachon Reservoir. Using the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division as the main attack force, the U.N.C. won a foothold in the area in July and then, in August, broadened the attack to include Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges, located about four miles west of the Punchbowl. The U.S. 1st Marine Division and elements of the ROK 7th, 8th, 11th and Capital Divisions joined the assault to wrest the fiercely defended terrain from the Communists during the ensuing two months. When the U.N.C. troops concluded the successful attacks in mid-October, the cost in casualties was high, with the U.S. 2nd Division alone suffering more than 6,000 during the offensive.

Determined to sustain pressure on the enemy, Van Fleet also conducted a modest advance of about six miles on a line roughly from Munsan-ni on the west to Kumsong in the central sector of the front. Three U.S. divisions–the 1st Cavalry, 3rd Infantry and 25th Infantry–the British 1st Commonwealth Division, and the ROK 1st Division participated in this offensive during October and removed this salient in the line. Communist resistance was again intense and the 1st Cavalry Division took more than 2,900 of the 4,000 casualties suffered by the U.N.C. forces in the advance.

But the punishing “elbowing forward” tactics of the Eighth Army had given the U.N.C. the battlefield initiative and kept the enemy off balance as well as inflicting thousands of casualties on the Communist combat units. The limited offensives at the front coupled with U.N.C. air and naval attacks helped persuade the enemy to resume the truce talks in October.

When the plenary session resumed at the new conference site at Panmunjom October 25, the delegates began to iron out their differences on Item 2, the military demarcation line and the demilitarized zone. Before the talks had broken off, the Communists had worked diligently for the restoration of the 38th Parallel as the military demarcation line and the U.N.C. had firmly rejected all attempts to consider a return to the old boundary line. In an effort to shake the Communist stand, Joy had offered a novel approach to solving that problem. Since the U.N.C. controlled the sea and the air over Korea, he had contended that the enemy should compensate the U.N.C. for giving up its sea and air superiority by surrendering additional land territory at the front. Joy’s proposal to break up the overall military power into component parts and give them separate values for bargaining purposes was an interesting gamble, but it had met with swift and rude rejection by the Communists. Nam Il had maintained that the current battle lines reflected the concentrated expression of the total military effectiveness of the U.N.C. land, sea and air forces. When Joy had pointed out that Japan had been defeated in World War II without a single enemy soldier setting foot on the home islands, Nam had even derided the claim that the United States had vanquished Japan at all and had insisted that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war had provided the crushing blow. Nevertheless, the Joy proposal did provide a trade-off in settling the differences between the two sides over the military demarcation line when the October sessions began.

The Communist spurning of the U.N.C. offers to trade territory and the U.N.C. refusal to talk about the 38th Parallel finally led the conferees to accept the current battle line as the line of demarcation November 27. The line dipped south of the 38th Parallel in the west and arced north in the east. The Communist insistence on completing the work on the line of demarcation before taking up the other three agenda items aroused Ridgway’s suspicions. Although the U.N.C. insisted that the line would only be valid for 30 days, it soon became apparent that the enemy intended to make the line a permanent rather than a temporary arrangement, and had, in effect, gained a de facto cease-fire, as Ridgway had predicted. Almost immediately, military operations slowed down and the Communists showed no disposition to reach swift agreement on the remaining items before the 30-day limit expired.

Debate on Item 3—the establishment of a supervisory organization to ensure that both sides complied with the terms of the Armistice—got underway in December 1951. After preliminary skirmishing, three basic questions emerged: Who would carry out the inspections behind the lines to report on violations? How much inspection would be permitted? Would the rehabilitation or construction of airfields be allowed during the Armistice?

Although the Communists eventually suggested that neutral nations be named to do the inspecting, they ran into adamant opposition when they tried to designate the Soviet Union as one of their choices. Considering the major role the Soviet Union had played in supporting the North Korean and Communist Chinese military effort, the U.N.C. refused to accept the U.S.S.R. as part of a neutral nation supervisory organization.

On the question of inspection, which the Communists traditionally had opposed in the past, it was the U.N.C., surprisingly enough, that proposed to limit neutral inspection teams to selected ports of entry and centers of communication. Ridgway maintained that the Communists would probably exploit the privilege of unlimited inspection for intelligence purposes and held that the neutral inspection teams could adequately check on the arrivals and departures of men and material. Since the Communists were willing to accept limited inspection, the discussions settled down to the designation of the number and location of the inspection points.

The second major stumbling block on Item 3 arose when the U.N.C. insisted that there should be no rehabilitation or construction of airfields during the Armistice. Both Ridgway and Joy contended that the enemy should not be allowed to take advantage of the truce to strengthen its air potential in North Korea. But the Communists rejected all efforts to place restrictions on airfields just as resolutely as the U.N.C. resisted Communist attempts to name the Soviet Union as a neutral nation.

With the major differences on Item 3 reduced to two, compromise again was reached. Poland and Czechoslovakia became the Communists’ nominees for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, and Sweden and Switzerland were the choices by the U.N.C. delegation to complete the membership of that group. Now that the Communists had dropped the Soviet Union from their list of candidates, the U.N.C. withdrew its insistence on airfield restrictions.

Final agreement on Item 3 also included the acceptance of 20 neutral-nation teams to carry out the inspections, with 10 to be assigned to five ports of entry on each side. Replacement of materiel was to be on a one-for-one basis only and no more than 35,000 troops were to be rotated in any one month, again on a one-for-one basis. To handle all violations of the truce and the supervision and administration of the demilitarized zone, the negotiators established a Military Armistice Commission that would operate out of Panmunjom.

While arrangements for Item 3 were well underway, the opening discussions on Item 4, the repatriation of prisoners of war, took place. Although neither the United States nor North Korea had ratified the Geneva Convention of 1949 on prisoners of war, both had agreed to abide by its stipulations. Since Article 118 of the Convention clearly stated that all prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay at the end of hostilities, there appeared to be little room for dispute. Yet difficulties arose at the outset on the exchange of prisoners and steadily mounted as the issue became burdened with fundamentally divisive elements. A series of conflicts broke out between the rights of the individual and those of the majority, between legal rights and human rights, and between humanitarianism and Communist pride.

The first evidence of trouble appeared just before Christmas 1951, when the two sides exchanged lists of prisoners of war. The U.N.C. rosters contained the names of 132,000 prisoners of war in addition to another 37,000 recently reclassified as civilian internees. Since the Communists claimed that they were missing about 188,000 personnel, the U.N.C. holdings represented about 90 percent of the Communist total. On the other hand, the Communist list contained only about 11,500 names—7,100 South Koreans and 4,400 U.N. personnel—despite their claim that they had taken 65,000 prisoners and the U.N.C. listing 88,000 South Koreans and 11,500 U.S. troops as missing in action. The Communist list, therefore, comprised only about 12 percent of the U.N.C. total, a remarkable disparity.

Pressed to explain the great difference between the two totals, the Communists maintained that their lists were small because they had “re-educated” and released thousands of prisoners at the front. They strongly denied that they had impressed large numbers of former South Korean military personnel into their armed forces. In addition, they decried the U.N.C. practice of screening prisoners and reclassifying as civilian internees those reportedly impressed into North Korea’s military forces.

During the early discussions on prisoners of war in late 1951, no mention was made about the principles of voluntary or forced repatriation. Army staff officers in Washington had pointed out in mid-1951 that there were many Chinese prisoners of war who had formerly served in the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, and that they and others who had demonstrated anti-Communist attitudes in the U.N.C. prisoner of war camps would likely be severely punished if they were returned to Communist control. The possibility of offering such prisoners a choice would be not only humanitarian, but also presented interesting psychological warfare opportunities. Although the concept appealed to Ridgway, he pointed out that once the United States openly advocated such a principle, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to abandon it.

Photo Caption: American members of the United Nations Delegation to the Panmunjom Military Armistice Conference attend a daily meeting at the Musanni United Nations Base Camp. Left to right: Colonel Andrew J. Kinney, USAF; Rear Admiral Ruthven E. Libby, USN; Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, USN, Chief Delegate; Colonel Don O. Darrow, USAF; Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence G. Hill; Major General Howard M. Turner, USAF; and Major General Jai Heung Yu, Republic of Korea Army.

Since Ridgway’s first concern was the quick and safe return of all the prisoners held by the Communists, he was reluctant to espouse any policy that might endanger their release. On the other hand, he was willing to try a gambit that might work. If the Communists would consent to a one-for-one exchange, the U.N.C. could withhold all prisoners unwilling to return to Communist control until all of the U.N.C. prisoners of war had been exchanged and then could let the remaining detainees exercise an option. The enemy negotiators, however, quickly extinguished any hopes for a one-for-one exchange and insisted firmly on an all-for-all settlement.

Blocked by the Communists on this score, the U.N.C. delegates tried another tack in the closing days of 1951, and in the process, became committed to the principle of voluntary repatriation. They proposed to accept the Communist concept that a soldier captured could upon release choose whether to return to his own army or to join the other side. Since the Communists had admitted that they had “re-educated” and released thousands of prisoners during the early stages of the war, they had already practiced “voluntary repatriation” and the U.N.C. advocated the adoption of this policy by both sides as a means of assuring that all prisoners would be treated equitably.

When the Communists reacted vehemently to the use of their own practices, Admiral Ruthven Libby, who had replaced Burke on the delegation, solicitously reminded them that the Chinese troops, according to the enemy’s own avowals, were all simply volunteers eager to fight for the Korean People’s Army. If this were true, he could not understand why the Communists were worried about any of their volunteers not wanting to go home. But General Lee Sang Cho, his Communist counterpart, refused to rise to the bait and even denied any incongruities in the Communists’ earlier and current positions on voluntary repatriation. Lee, however, did recognize the somewhat distorted logic in his arguments. At one of the January meetings, while defending the Communist system of prisoner education and calling it righteous and benevolent, he became so convulsed with suppressed laughter that he could scarcely complete his remarks.

During the talks that took place in February and March 1952, the Communists remained adamantly opposed to voluntary repatriation. Their hatred of Chiang Kai-shek and fear that Chinese prisoners of war might be sent to Taiwan if not repatriated were clearly expressed in the staff meetings. Although they refused to yield on voluntary repatriation for former North Korean and Chinese soldiers, they did evidence a softer attitude on personnel who had lived in South Korea. One of the main problems at this point was that neither side had any firm idea about how many of the prisoners held by the U.N.C. would refuse repatriation since no real screening had been carried out.

An estimate based on guesswork made in February by the U.N.C. staff assumed that of the 132,000 in its custody, about 28,000 would not want to go home, but only 16,000 would resist repatriation. It also assumed that about half of the 20,000 Chinese prisoners would forcibly resist repatriation, since they were well-organized and led by leaders with strong pro Chiang Kai-shek sympathies. Although the guess that 116,000 of the 132,000 would probably agree to repatriation had no basis in fact, it became critical in early April, when the Communists demonstrated an interest in securing a firm estimate of how many prisoners would be returned. Lacking any accurate figures, the U.N.C. staff officers indicated that about 116,000 military repatriates would be involved in an exchange. Citing this figure may have been a tactical error on the part of the U.N.C., since the Communists accepted it as an approximate total and were led to believe that they would recover about that number of prisoners. The enemy delegation quickly suggested that both sides check their lists to secure firm figures with the evident expectation that no more than 16,000 of their captured personnel would elect to remain under U.N.C. control.

Although the U.N.C. teams, sought to persuade as many of the prisoners as possible to return home during the April screening period, the final results astounded both sides. Only about 70,000 of the military prisoners indicated that they would consent to repatriation without the use of force. Significantly, only a little more than 6,000 of the more than 20,000 Chinese prisoners were included in the 70,000. The Communists’ first reaction to this disclosure was profound shock, swiftly followed by bitter anger. They felt that they had been deliberately deceived by the U.N.C. for propaganda purposes. With the Communists deeply resentful, exchanges at the truce talks became acrimonious and little progress was made. The U.N.C. offer to swap the 70,000 prisoners for the 12,000 that the Communists held was coldly rejected at the end of April. The Communists wanted at least 116,000 returned and were especially concerned about the low total of Chinese repatriates.

The enemy secured fresh ammunition for their attacks on voluntary repatriation in May 1952, when violence erupted in the U.N.C. prisoner of war camps on the island of Koje-do, off the southern coast of South Korea. Communist prisoners seized the U.N.C. camp commander and used him to bargain both for concessions and for damaging admissions that the prisoners had been treated inhumanely and had been subjected to forcible screening. Although these concessions were given under duress, the enemy was able to gain the propaganda initiative during the summer of 1952.

In the process of restoring order in the prisoner of war camps after this incident, the U.N.C. carried out a more thorough screening and segregated all the prisoners desiring repatriation from those who wished to stay. By including civilian internees and South Koreans who wanted to go to North Korea, the new total came to about 83,000. When the U.N.C. submitted the revised figures to the Communists in July, however, they were again rejected. The enemy continued to insist on the return of higher numbers and made it increasingly clear that the Chinese prisoners were the real bone of contention.

With the negotiations stalled, both General Mark W. Clark, who had replaced Ridgway as U.N. commander, and Major General William K. Harrison, who had replaced Joy as chief U.N.C. negotiator in May, recommended that the U.N.C. present the Communists with several alternate proposals for the disposition of the non-repatriates. Then if the Communists refused to accept any of them, the U.N.C. would suspend the truce talks. Such a course would demonstrate to the Communists that the U.N.C. had reached its final bargaining position.

President Harry S. Truman approved this action in September 1952, and on the 28th, Harrison offered the Communists three alternatives:

1. All prisoners would be brought to the demilitarized zone and checked off by Red Cross or joint military teams. They could then choose whether to be repatriated or to remain in the control of the side that detained them;

2. All prisoners desiring repatriation would be exchanged expeditiously. All non-repatriates would be brought to the demilitarized zone in small groups and would be interviewed by teams from countries not involved in the war and could then elect repatriation or non-repatriation;

3. All prisoners desiring repatriation would be exchanged as quickly as possible. All non-repatriates would then be brought to the demilitarized zone and freed. They could then go, without screening or interviews, to the side of their choice.

When the Communists turned down these proposals and continued to demand full repatriation, Harrison declared on October 8, that the meetings would be in recess until they accepted one of the U.N.C. proposals or offered a constructive one of their own. The talking stage had come to an end.

While the talks had been going on, combat at the front had been restricted in the main to limited attacks to maintain pressure on the enemy and to seize favorable terrain. Clark, like Ridgway, had no desire to incur large numbers of casualties to take objectives that might have to be given up when an Armistice was reached. Clark did authorize several larger-scale offensives to increase the pressure on the enemy after the truce talks went into recess, but the efforts to take the Triangle Hill complex north of Kumwha in October and November proved to be costly and the approach of winter discouraged further attempts to improve the U.N.C. battlefield positions.

Although the liaison officers continued to meet during the winter of 1952-53, they dealt mainly in complaints and alleged violations of the truce area and no progress was made in substantive matters. The advent of a Republican administration under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1953, led to several attempts, including the veiled threat of the use of nuclear weapons, to increase the pressure on the enemy to end the conflict, but to little avail.

On March 5, however, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died unexpectedly and a thaw began in East– ; West relations as his successors sought to consolidate their power during the transition period that followed. Evidence of the change came in late March. In the previous month Clark had sent a routine letter to the North Korean and Chinese Communist commanders that requested the immediate exchange of sick and wounded prisoners. Earlier attempts along this line had been fruitless and Clark held little hope that his suggestion would be accepted at that time. In the aftermath of Stalin’s death, the Communist military commanders, on March 28, not only accepted Clark’s offer on the sick and wounded, but also opened the door for further negotiations to settle the disposition of the other prisoners as well. Two days later, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai stated that both sides should hand over any prisoners who did not wish to be repatriated to a neutral nation for disposition and set the stage for the resumption of plenary talks in mid-April.

In the meantime, the liaison officers met April 6, to discuss the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners in a completely different and business-like atmosphere, free of recriminations and rhetoric. Lists were prepared and exchanged and arrangements were made for transporting the sick and wounded to Panmunjom for their transfer. Operation Little Switch, as it was called, took place on April 20, when the U.N.C. turned over 5,194 North Korean and 1,030 Chinese soldiers, plus 446 civilian internees, to the Communists, and received 684 sick and wounded soldiers, including 149 Americans, from the enemy.

Photo Caption: The 3-year-old Korean War comes to an official halt as General O.P. Weyland (left) Far East Air Forces commander, General Mark W. Clark (center), U.N. commander-in-chief, and Vice Admiral, Robert P. Brisco (right), Far East Naval commander, take part in truce signing ceremonies at the U.N. base camp at Munsan.

The threat of an indecisive settlement of the conflict alarmed South Korean President Syngman Rhee and he mounted a strong campaign in opposition, vowing to continue the war alone if necessary. Since South Korea was in no position to wage a prolonged war without U.S. assistance, the South Korean speeches and demonstrations proved to be more embarrassments than deterrents. The U.N.C. and the Communists pushed ahead in the weeks after Little Switch to resolve the last remaining issues: who would take charge of the non-repatriates, how long would they be held, and what would be their final disposition if they could not be persuaded to return home?

Initially the U.N.C. preferred Switzerland as the chief custodial nation, but the Communists had turned that choice down and instead had pressed for India as the fifth member of a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission along with Switzerland, Sweden, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The U.N.C. had conceded on that issue, with the specification that India would provide all the military and administrative personnel to carry out the mission. On the other hand, the U.N.C. proved to be less amenable to the Communist proposal that the nonrepatriates be held for six months while the Communist teams sought to change their minds about returning home. After some debate, the negotiators worked out a compromise period of 90 days and also agreed that there would be no more than seven men to act as explainers or persuaders for each 1,000 non-repatriates. For those who continued to resist repatriation after 90 days, their fate would be considered at a political conference to be convened after the Armistice was signed. If the conference failed to resolve their disposition within 30 days, the non-repatriates would be declared civilians and be free to seek residence in another country.

As the conferees moved ever closer to a final agreement in May, South Korean agitation continued to increase. Since the non-repatriates would remain on South Korean soil during the period of explaining and Syngman Rhee opposed the selection of India as the chief custodial nation, a crisis threatened to develop unless some means could be found to reconcile the sharp differences between the United States and South Korea over the projected terms of the Armistice. Basic to the settlement of these differences was the need to dispel South Korean fears that the United States might desert it if hostilities broke out again after the Armistice was signed. Although the United States was reluctant to conclude a bilateral security pact while South Korean threats and pressures were in such open evidence, Eisenhower decided at the end of May to offer such a pact to Rhee in an effort to defuse the dangerous situation.

But Rhee had placed himself in an exposed political position by stirring up South Korean emotions to a high pitch and had to take some action before he accepted the U.S. offer. On June 18, South Korean forces guarding the prisoners of war permitted about 27,000 Korean nonrepatriates to escape from their compounds; the majority of the escapees were quickly absorbed into the civilian population and were impossible to recover without South Korean cooperation. The unilateral action, although it caused an immediate uproar, did serve to relieve the pressure on Rhee to some degree and he became more responsive to U.S. arguments that the bilateral security pact would provide assurance of U.S. support in the future, and additionally that South Korea needed more time to expand and develop its armed forces. By early July, he agreed not to obstruct the implementation of the Armistice terms despite his continued misgivings over the long-term results.

The Communist reaction to Rhee’s release of the non-repatriates in the meantime had been surprisingly mild, although they had obviously relished the U.N.C. embarrassment over the incident. During May and June, while the final details of the truce were being worked out, they had carried out a series of offensives to improve their defensive positions along the eastern and central fronts and, in the process, to deal the South Korean units opposing them a telling blow. The heavy attacks, which did not peter out until mid-July, caused heavy casualties on both sides and may have had a sobering effect on Rhee’s bellicosity.

Although the U.N.C. could not guarantee Rhee’s full observance of the Armistice terms, the Communists were now ready to complete the agreement. A final demarcation line was drawn and last-minute arrangements for the transfer of prisoners, repatriates and non-repatriates was settled. On July 27, the plenary delegates met at Panmunjom and signed 18 copies of the truce agreement. Twelve hours later, the fighting came to an end.

Shortly after the Armistice was signed, the exchange of prisoners got under way. By September 6, the U.N.C. had sent more than 75,000 repatriates to the Communists and had received more than 12,000 from the enemy. On September 23, the U.N.C. followed up and delivered more than 22,000 non-repatriates to the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in the demilitarized zone, and the Communists gave the Commission more than 350 U.N.C. non-repatriates. Communist efforts to persuade their non-repatriates to return during the 90 days granted them were largely unsuccessful and only about 600 chose to go back when the explaining period came to an end in December. The Korean non-repatriates were released in Korea and the Chinese were sent to Taiwan, with the exception of 86, who elected to go to India. As for U.N.C. non-repatriates, only 12 changed their mind; the remainder, including 21 Americans, were returned to Communist control in early 1954.

Since the war had never been declared, it was fitting that there should be no official ending, merely a suspension of hostilities. With the uncertainty of Syngman Rhee’s intentions casting a deep shadow over the truce agreement, how long it would last was a matter for conjecture.

Perhaps the major deterrent to renewal of the conflict was the high costs in manpower and economic resources required to continue the fighting. Estimates of enemy battle losses alone came to more than 1.5 million men, and the U.N.C. had suffered more than 500,000 just to achieve a virtual standoff. The potential costs involved in attaining a total military victory in Korea were higher than either side wished to pay in 1953, and that, in effect, was the most patent indication that the Armistice would prove durable.

Walter Hermes


Far East Command, United Nations Command, Headquarters, Military History Section. History of the Korean War. Korean Armistice Negotiations (July 1951-May 1952) (n.d.).

Goodman, A.E., ed. Negotiating While Fighting: The Diary of Admiral C. Turner Joy at the Korean Armistice Conference (1978).

Hermes, Walter G. Truce Tent and Fighting Front (1966).

Joy, C. Turner. How Communists Negotiate (1955).

Schnable, J.F., and R.D. Watson. History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vol. 3, The Korean War (1979).

U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, vol. 7, Korea and China (1983).

Vatcher, William H., Jr. Panmunjom: The Story of the Korean Military Armistice Negotiations (1958).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.