55 Remnants of Conflict: The Korean War Prisoners Who Chose Brazil

By | May 23, 2019 | No Comments

POWs learning the Brazilian national anthem in New Delhi. | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

Latin America is home to tens of thousands of “overseas Koreans”.1)This ethnocentric term (해외동포/재외동포) privileges bloodline and heritage. As such, the category incorporates multiple generations of Koreans, and includes naturalized citizens of receiving states. South Korean government statistics record that in 2017 there were 106,794 people of Korean heritage residing in countries of the region.2)South Korean government statistics also include temporary sojourners. A handful of these communities are sizeable. There are around 23,000 overseas Koreans in Argentina, where they occupy key nodes in the textiles industry.3)Jihye Kim, “Ethnicity, opportunity, and upward mobility: Korean entrepreneurship in the Argentine garment industry 1965–2015,” Asian Ethnicity (2018). A further 11,000 reside in Mexico, more than half in Mexico City. There are 5,000 each in Guatemala and Paraguay, and 2,500 live in Chile.

But almost half (51,531, or 48%) of the total reside in Brazil.4)The overwhelming majority (48,704) are in São Paulo, concentrated very heavily in the districts of Bom Retiro, Brás and Aclimação. The Coreano-brasileiro community dates back to the early 1960s, when legislative changes at home and the lure of economic growth 5)GDP growth exceeded 7% p.a. from 1950 to 1961, and though it declined to 4% p.a. thereafter, Brazil remained an attractive prospect. began to drive South Koreans away from Park Chung-hee’s impoverished military dictatorship and across the Pacific in significant numbers. Fascinatingly, though, a small group of 55 Chinese and North Korean POWs from the Korean War was resettled in the country more than five years earlier than that. Here, Leonardo Barbosa sheds light on this most peculiar of Korean War legacies. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor

Remnants of a Conflict: The 55 Korean War Prisoners Who Chose Brazil

by Leonardo Barbosa

On 6 February 1956, after his life had been completely shaken up by the advent of the Korean War, Liu Wei Yong6)Liu Wei Yong, identified in the NNRC report POW # 730792, Pvt. finally landed in his new homeland, Brazil.7)“Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros),” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956. Liu, like some other twenty thousand prisoners of war, after serving in the Chinese and North Korean armies and subsequently being imprisoned in brutal United Nations camps, decided that he no longer wanted to return to his communist motherland. Unlike the thousands of North Korean and Chinese ex-soldiers who became anti-communist in captivity and preferred to relocate to South Korea and Taiwan, Liu followed the path of another eighty-seven ex-soldiers who accepted an offer to start a completely new life in a neutral country yet to be determined.8)David C. Chang, “To return home or “Return to Taiwan”: conflicts and survival in the “Voluntary Repatriation” of Chinese POWs in the Korean War”, PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2011, 412.

This opportunity seized by Liu and so many others started to take shape in October 1951, when almost all the minutiae of the Korean War armistice had already been agreed by the belligerents. One last unresolved issue –the destinies of thousands of prisoners of war captured by the United Nations forces but who refused to be repatriated to their home countries of China and North Korea — emerged as the main reason why the conflict would not end for another eighteen months, starting the psychological axis within the Korean War.9)Monica Kim, “Humanity Interrogated: Empire, Nation, and the Political Subject in U.S. and UN-controlled POW Camps of the Korean War, 1942-1960”, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011, 70.

While the communist side promoted the need for an automatic and mandatory repatriation of its forces, Truman and the U.S. wanted to ensure that the United Nations’ intervention in the Korean War was to be seen only as an impartial and brave way of bringing “freedom for all mankind”, against the oppressive evil of communism. Based on this principle, the United States representatives in Panmunjom demanded that the repatriation of prisoners of war must occur only on a voluntary basis, since if the West allowed the forced return of the Chinese and North Korean soldiers back to their authoritarian home states, this could be considered a defeat of the democratic block.

On July 27, 1953, after many failed rounds of negotiation, the North Korean and Chinese governments agreed to the voluntary repatriation deal and put a practical end to the Korean War with the armistice agreement that is still in effect today. Part of the peace agreement called for the creation of the NNRC (Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee, composed of Switzerland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Poland and led by India), which, under U.N. command, was able to conduct a thorough process of awareness-raising among the prisoners, giving them three options to be chosen between freely: to repatriate back to China or North Korea; to move to its capitalist counterparts Taiwan and South Korea; or the least obvious option, to move to a neutral country, uncertain and still undetermined.

While the majority of the self-styled anti-Communist POWs chose South Korea and Taiwan as their new homes, abandoning the ideology of their former states decisively, eighty-eight men opted for the “third way” and sacrificed most of their old lives in order to search for peace in another place, distant from their own cultures.

These 12 Chinese and 76 North Korean POWs were provisionally sent to India in February 1954, where they lived relatively quietly in army hospital barracks.10)Tad Szulc, “Brazil Receives Korea ex-P.O.W.’S,” The New York Times, February 15, 1956. Many had the opportunity to learn English, study vocational professions such as mechanics, smoke ‘Chesterfield’ cigarettes and some even started dating Indian women.11)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956. During the approximately two years they spent in New Delhi, four North Koreans and two Chinese ended up deciding to return to their previous nations, while India permitted seven to establish new lives permanently in the country.12)Aí vem os prisioneiros coreanos,” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 3, 1956; “57 Ex-Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia Para o Brasil,” Luta Democrática, February 4, 1956; “Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia para o Brasil,” Correio da Manhã, February 4, 1956; “Emigrantes coreanos para o Brasil,” O Estado de S. Paulo, February 4, 1956.

Koreans learning Portuguese. In this picture, two ask for assistance from their teacher, Idamur Gouveia | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

75 with Nowhere to Go: To Ilha das Flores | For the 75 prisoners who still longed for the neutrality that had been promised to them, however, the situation did not look so good, and many of them started petitioning third governments — Brazilian, Mexican, Argentinian and Dominican — requesting exile.13)Monica Kim, 313. After a year and a half of much uncertainty, in September 1955 the Brazilian ambassador addressed to the UN that his country had decided to receive all the former POWs. The decision was condemned by the South Korean government as a Brazilian “intromission” in national affairs, as Seoul believed all Koreans should be repatriated to South Korea and not to neutral countries.14)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955. Nonetheless, the Brazilian decision was accepted and praised by the 10th General Assembly in November 1955.

During a farewell dinner in New Delhi in early February 1956, the former prisoners of war who accepted Brazil as their destination made a speech to thank the government of India for their hospitality, as well as the Brazilian ambassador and government who had agreed to receive them.15)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955. Although 57 men originally accepted the Brazilian invitation, two did not make the trip, one due to health problems and another for unknown reasons. As for the 22 ex-POWs who stayed in India, correspondences concerning the NNRC reported that 11 went to Argentina and 9 to Mexico — although there is no evidence that any of these men actually ended up in Mexico.16)UN, Document A/2641 (Reports of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission), p. 163.

Fifty-five soldiers that had fought on the communist side of the Korean War landed at Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro on February 6 at 8:30 AM. They had stopped over in London, travelled in an Air France plane, and had their expenses covered in equal parts by the United Nations and Sino-Korean Joint Command. At the airport, the men were received by the São Paulo honorary consul, Mr. Shjokin, and placed under the supervision and assistance of the National Institute of Colonization and Immigration (INIC) of Brazil.17)“Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros)” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956.

The 50 Koreans and 5 Chinese were immediately accommodated on Flores Island (Ilha das Flores), a former military prison that was being used to house World War II refugees who had sought exile to Brazil. When the migrants arrived, each one received cutlery, a cup and a bed. They were compelled to follow the night curfews and do all their own cleaning. On the other hand, they received full medical and psychological assistance, had daily Portuguese language classes, and received Christian religious instructions, all subsidized by the Brazilian government.18) “Coreano é quem manda no mundo cosmopolita da Ilha das Flores,” Tribuna da Imprensa, April 4, 1956.

One week after the arrival of the ex-POWs in Flores Island, the reporter Luís Glauco Tôrres, from the Tribuna da Imprensa newspaper, had the opportunity to meet them and write about their experiences. He reported that some of the Koreans performed an Arirang song for the crew, with some of the audience getting emotional and even crying. Some also demonstrated knowing the lyrics of the Brazilian National Anthem, which they had been taught back in New Delhi.19)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

One of the people interviewed by Tôrres was Jai Ryong Kun.20)Could be identified in the NNRC report as either Jeong Seong Kong (POW # 127959) or Kim Jeo Koon (POW # 144051). Regarded as smart, intelligent and well-spoken by the journalist, Kun said he had only been educated to middle school level and wanted to find a Brazilian girlfriend. In addition, Kun said:

“I do not want to go back to my country, partly because of the hard life difficulties, which after the war have gotten even worse. Also, because in North Korea there are no liberties nor guarantees for the rights of men. I want to learn Portuguese and follow a liberal career. Maybe (become) a lawyer, if I am lucky enough.”

“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

The history of Liu Wey Yong is also reported. The young Chinese man was 24 years old at the time and was considered to be “remarkably small” (1.54m) by the journalist. Very popular on the island, he was born in Rongchang, a village near Chongqing. He started studying Agronomy at the so-called “Yong Kang University” but interrupted his studies when he was forcibly recruited to the People’s Volunteer Army and sent to fight in Korea. He reports that his father was murdered by Mao’s government, which became the reason why he allegedly hated communism and had a Nationalist Chiang Kai Shek army symbol tattooed in his arm – something that many prisoners were forced to do to show allegiance in the anti-communist dominated camps. Liu drew attention with a prominent forehead scar caused by a grenade explosion, his basketball skills and the girlfriend that he left waiting in New Delhi. He stated: “I definitely want to earn money in Brazil and then go back to India to marry my girlfriend, and if I do not finish my agronomy studies, I am going to become a shoemaker, for which I already have the practice.”21)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

Talking about religion, the journalist highlighted two Koreans who wanted to become evangelical preachers, and one, a Catholic priest. Kang Siok Keun 22)Hang Seo Keun, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 139387, 1 / Lt., ex-fighter in the Korean People’s Army, was reported as being a convert from Atheism to Catholicism under the new name of Longinus, and even intended to become a priest. Lim Chang Yong23)Lim Chong Heong, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 79554, Pvt., a mechanic, was one of the two who wanted to become a protestant preacher. He said that he still had in mind the image of his parents’ execution in North Korea, something that only happened because they followed the Presbyterian Christian faith. He expressed his gratitude towards Brazil, seeing it as a democratic and free country. The journalist points out that from the 55 POWs, 16 identified as Protestants, 12 as Catholics and 27 did not have any religion.24)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

The story of Kang Yong Bin also makes a brief appearance.25)Identified in NNRC report as POW # 73687, 2 / Lt. A former lieutenant from the Korean People’s Army, he was reportedly treated with much respect by the younger ones. Bin, like almost all the rest of the North Koreans, had been a student at university in Pyongyang before being drafted to fight in the war.26)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

Picture of Liao Wei Yong holding a basketball. | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

Hopes Dashed: The POWs Scatter | Five months after arriving, however, the situation of the former POWs in Brazil was becoming critical. Although it is reported that only two of them were still living on Flores Island, some expressed an interest in going back to Korea, justifying the decision mainly with regard to the bad treatment that they said they had received in the country and in Flores Island.27)“Coreanos não pensam em voltar à Coréia,” Tribuna da Imprensa, May 21, 1956. In June 1956, Mr. Cho Chung Hwan, interim Minister of External Affairs of the Republic of Korea, confirmed that twenty of the Korean POWs that had moved to Brazil were now moving to South Korea. He added that the South Korean ambassador to the U.S, Mr. Yung Yu Chan, had persuaded them to take the decision. At the same time, however, many still chose to stay in Brazil: eighteen had moved to the city of Vassouras to work with a Presbyterian Mission, while the rest scattered independently to cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, to finally start their new lives as Brazilian citizens.28)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, June 24, 1956.

As for Liu Wei Yong, after being liberated from the Island, still in 1956, he started working as an electrician in Rio de Janeiro at Standard Elétrica and lived in a boarding house with two former prison camp colleagues, Yang Rongsheng and Pan Guirong until 1961, when he married a Brazilian woman and had (eventually) five children with her, two daughters and three sons. Wei Yong worked in his electric repair shop until the end of his life, passing away in 2007 at age 79, without ever having set his feet in his old motherland again.29)Information given through a conversation with Liu’s daughter, Liniana Liao, in São Paulo, Brazil, 2018.

The lives of Liu, Pan, Yang, Lim, Hang, Kang and many others who eventually ended up in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the United States or even back in China, Taiwan and South Korea, serve to highlight how the conflict displaced an incredible number of men and women, destroying family ties and cultural and territorial bonds. Although some efforts were made in 2018 to reunite some of the Korean families disrupted by the war, none of the North Koreans that moved to Brazil in 1956 saw the region of their birth ever again. Choices made in 1954 left bruises that could never be fully healed.


   [ + ]

1. This ethnocentric term (해외동포/재외동포) privileges bloodline and heritage. As such, the category incorporates multiple generations of Koreans, and includes naturalized citizens of receiving states.
2. South Korean government statistics also include temporary sojourners.
3. Jihye Kim, “Ethnicity, opportunity, and upward mobility: Korean entrepreneurship in the Argentine garment industry 1965–2015,” Asian Ethnicity (2018).
4. The overwhelming majority (48,704) are in São Paulo, concentrated very heavily in the districts of Bom Retiro, Brás and Aclimação.
5. GDP growth exceeded 7% p.a. from 1950 to 1961, and though it declined to 4% p.a. thereafter, Brazil remained an attractive prospect.
6. Liu Wei Yong, identified in the NNRC report POW # 730792, Pvt.
7. “Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros),” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956.
8. David C. Chang, “To return home or “Return to Taiwan”: conflicts and survival in the “Voluntary Repatriation” of Chinese POWs in the Korean War”, PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2011, 412.
9. Monica Kim, “Humanity Interrogated: Empire, Nation, and the Political Subject in U.S. and UN-controlled POW Camps of the Korean War, 1942-1960”, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011, 70.
10. Tad Szulc, “Brazil Receives Korea ex-P.O.W.’S,” The New York Times, February 15, 1956.
11. “Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.
12. Aí vem os prisioneiros coreanos,” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 3, 1956; “57 Ex-Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia Para o Brasil,” Luta Democrática, February 4, 1956; “Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia para o Brasil,” Correio da Manhã, February 4, 1956; “Emigrantes coreanos para o Brasil,” O Estado de S. Paulo, February 4, 1956.
13. Monica Kim, 313.
14. “Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955.
15. “Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955.
16. UN, Document A/2641 (Reports of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission), p. 163.
17. “Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros)” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956.
18. “Coreano é quem manda no mundo cosmopolita da Ilha das Flores,” Tribuna da Imprensa, April 4, 1956.
19. “Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.
20. Could be identified in the NNRC report as either Jeong Seong Kong (POW # 127959) or Kim Jeo Koon (POW # 144051).
21. “Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.
22. Hang Seo Keun, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 139387, 1 / Lt.
23. Lim Chong Heong, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 79554, Pvt.
24. “Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.
25. Identified in NNRC report as POW # 73687, 2 / Lt.
26. “Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.
27. “Coreanos não pensam em voltar à Coréia,” Tribuna da Imprensa, May 21, 1956.
28. “Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, June 24, 1956.
29. Information given through a conversation with Liu’s daughter, Liniana Liao, in São Paulo, Brazil, 2018.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.