President Donald Trump has promised to return respect to the U.S. military after years of budget cutbacks and downsizing. There is no better way to demonstrate real respect for the military than to resolve decades-long ambiguity over the fate of Americans taken prisoners of war during the Korean War who were last seen in Chinese custody. The CIA has declassified some of its own reports which document the movement of American prisoners to these camps. For example, see the CIA’s report, “Movement OF UN POW’S to Tunghua, Manchuria” and “Conversion of City Prison for United Nations POW’s, Liaoyang.”
Some background: In 2008, the Pentagon agreed to pay China up to $150,000 a year to cull its archives for information about American prisoners of war and those missing in action. Beijing scammed the Pentagon, however, by subsequently claiming that the most important information–on Americans held but never released by China–was classified and could not be released.
To date, the Chinese refuse to come clean on prisoner camps from which no American prisoners ever returned. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has said as recently as March 21, 2017, that Beijing insists they are engaged in a slow declassification process, although there is no evidence that China is sincere or wants to come clean. Indeed, the Chinese canceled a DPAA mission that had been scheduled for October 2016.
It gets worse: The Chinese mock the American efforts with implausible explanations about some of the Americans confirmed in the camp. Beijing claims, for example, that Harry Moreland “escaped” from his mountain prison. Moreland, however, had both of his legs amputated, so this explanation is a non-starter.
Then there is the case of Gerald Glasser, who must have thought he would be soon released: He wrote home from his Chinese-run POW camp to order a new Studebaker car. He was subsequently “taken away in a jeep by Chinese officers,” never to be seen again.
In one case, at least, Chinese interlocutors appear to have acknowledged the falsity of their statements to U.S. counterparts. Sergeant Richard Desautels learned Chinese while in Chinese camps, but he was held in isolation when he began translating for his fellow prisoners. “He told me that the [Chinese] would not let him come in contact with other POW’s as he knew too much,” one friend reported. Perhaps having a sense of his ultimate fate, Desautels asked a fellow American prisoner that “if he should disappear to make inquiries concerning his whereabouts with the proper military authorities.”
For years, Chinese officials claimed that Desautels had “escaped.” But, during a 2003 meeting, a People’s Liberation Army representative stated that a classified record of his case—never released—suggested that Desautels became mentally ill on April 22, 1953, died a week later, and was buried near Shenyang. His body was subsequently exhumed to make room for construction, but the Chinese have not come clean where he was reinterred.
When President Barack Obama ransomed U.S. prisoners in Iran, he famously left one—former FBI official Robert Levinson—behind. For this, Obama was castigated, and rightly so. But, as Republicans criticize Obama, they should recognize that there is a similar sorry history of leaving men behind that blights both parties. This weekend, as Trump hosts Chinese leader Xi Jinping at Trump’s resort Mar-o-Largo, he has a chance to rectify decades of past wrongs.
Korean war prisoners are not some diplomatic inconvenience to be waved aside, nor will China ever respect Trump or any leader in the White House until they see he is willing to stand up for those who sacrificed everything for America’s freedom.