We all know the North Koreans have a thing for the theatrics. Heated rhetoric comes from them all the time. In fact, just the other day, North Korean state media referred to Obama as a “monkey” and the South Korean President as an “old prostitute.” This rhetoric, coupled with the long history of escapades, like the satellite launch in 2012, firing rockets into the sea and thereby restarting Caligula’s ancient war with Poseidon, and constant threats of nuclear testing, has long been used by the North Korean leaders to bolster their regime internally. Defying the great enemy that is the West, despite decades of international isolation and hardship is a North Korean pastime. But this is nothing new; North Korea and even their northern neighbors, the People’s Republic of China (China/PRC) have a long history of capitalizing on issues and events to use as propaganda to bolster their governments.
The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball.
During the Cold War, both North Korea and China made great efforts to convey that they were great countries to live in, perhaps even a paradise. During the Korean War in particular, they tried to deflect accusations from the international community that their U.N. prisoners were being mistreated. Most people remember that the first Olympic Games held on the Korean peninsula were in Seoul, in the summer of 1988, but they are mistaken. After the official 1952 Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, Finland in July, North Korea and the PRC created an alternative Olympic Games at a North Korean POW camp in Pyuktong. Prison camps near the Yalu River in North Korea competed in teams made up of men from the United States, Britain, South Korea, Turkey, France, the Philippines, and the Netherlands. The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball, all during the harsh North Korean winter. It would have many names, but it would be known as the Inter Camp Olympics. The Korean War has been dubbed the “Forgotten War,” but even those that remember it are not aware of this bizarre event. This is an obscure, yet fascinating event during the Korean War with which there is so little information.
Many studies of POWs during the Korean War include the infamous Clarence Adams, an African American POW from Memphis, Tennessee. He was one of the twenty-one Americans who decided to start a new life and live in the PRC, refusing repatriation after the armistice (yes, we’re still technically at war with North Korea).(1) His motives and experiences in China are often the most cited, but no one to my knowledge has ever cited his participation in the POW Olympics. He was in Camp 5, one of the several camps that participated in the games. We are aware of the death marches, the torture, and the poor treatment of POWs committed by the North Koreans in the early years of the war; Adams recalled how he weighed roughly 100 pounds. However, he observed that treatment improved after the Chinese took over their camp:
The Chinese took over Camp 5 in the spring of 1951 and introduced what they called their “lenient policy.” They lined us all up and told us that although they were not bound by the Geneva Convention, they had their own policy of leniency that would greatly improve our lives in the camp…and gradually it did. (2)
Adams cited the racial discrimination he and fellow African Americans faced as a major reason for staying on in a new socialist country. He ended up returning to the U.S., fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution.
The treatment of POWs in the North somewhat improved when the peace talks at Panmunjom started, when the Chinese adopted their “lenient policy.” From his account we learn that the Chinese were fairly reasonable in providing POWs with some level of comfort and normalcy, but it is unclear as to whether this is genuine, given that their new policy started right around the peace talks. Adams records that the Chinese:
…agreed to everything I asked for. After a couple of months, they brought in bats and baseballs, footballs, books, boxing gloves, parallel bars…We set up cooking and sanitation committees. We exercised every day. And the guys began to get stronger. We even got some medicine that we gave to the prisoners who were medics to administer… (3)
Along with beginning to see conditions improving in the camp, Adams is the only American POW that I found that definitively recorded the Inter Camp Olympics in a printed memoir:
A welcome interlude occurred in our daily lives with the Inter Camp P.O.W. Olympics, held in November 15-27, 1952, in Pyuktong, just outside of Camp 5. This was a time of heated negotiations, and the Chinese obviously hoped to gain positive worldwide publicity for hosting these games. Some prisoners refused to participate, but others…welcomed this diversion from the tedium of their daily lives, as well as the chance to talk to their buddies from other camps. (4)
Adams observed that several hundred POWs participated and competed in many sports, including “football, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, track and field, soccer, gymnastics, and of course boxing, where I fought as a lightweight.” We learn earlier in his memoir that he was an avid boxer. He must have been thrilled to be able to box competitively again, perhaps a reason why he never viewed the event in a negative light. From his recollection we learn that the Chinese put on quite a show, and tried to make it as grandiose and organized as possible: “We had our own photographers, announcers, and even reporters who put out a newspaper called the “Olympic Roundup” after each day’s events…It was great fun and made us forget about where we were for at least a few days.” (5)
Adams mentioned a newspaper called “Olympic Roundup” that was printed at the camp during the games, which brought me to a treasure of a website that I intend to continue analyzing in the future. Its contents include a brochure/pamphlet that was produced, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China, shortly after the Inter Camp Olympics; the extent to which it was distributed is unknown, but its contents were scanned and copied onto this website, courtesy of a group of British Korean War veterans.(6) The pamphlet includes a wealth of information, ranging from pictures of the sporting events and ceremonies, and every piece of information is straight from “Olympic Roundup,” which was written by the POWs covering the games. In the records of participants it lists Clarence Adams as one of the 22 competitors (with their serial numbers) in the boxing tournament. Pictures from the newspaper are also shown, and some the clippings described the significance of the event:
…I can say that in all the history of prisoner-of-war life, this sort of thing never happened before…it was the most colorful and gala event to come about during our stay here in Korea under the guidance of our captors…I am certain that no one in his sane mind will ever say that prisoners of war here are not the best cared for in the whole world today. May the peoples all the world over be informed of that First Inter-Camp Olympics Meet, 1952…
Another one goes further: “…It’s a pity, that the same atmosphere doesn’t prevail over all the world, because if so then how pleasant and peaceful life would be for us all.” The purpose of this pamphlet, like any pamphlet, was for distribution. However, discerning the audience is difficult; Since this is one of the only surviving records of such a piece, it is possible that it was distributed as a souvenir for POWs to take back home. It is also not clear if it was distributed in China, or if they were flown and dropped over U.N. territory to convince Western troops how much fun their POW friends were having while they were freezing in a foxhole.
The irony in all of this of course is that everyone who participated in this event, from those you see smiling and competing with each other in sports uniforms (see pictures at the end), to those that wrote and recorded the event in the newspaper, were captives. The writing in the newspapers that were meant for distribution is full of praise, to convince participants that maybe the Communist governments were not so bad after all.(7) The general consensus is that the event was used as a propaganda ploy, and participants had to have been well aware of this. In a paper written to describe life in POW camps for Marines during the War, Colonel James Angus MacDonald mentions the Games in a few pages (out of several hundred). In it he quotes an Air Force pilot who described a Major Thomas D. Harrison, who I was able to cross-reference with the pamphlet website and confirm that he played basketball as a participant in the Olympics:
…he attended an athletic meet in Pyoktong. While there, his skill as an athlete helped restore the prestige of the officers torn down by the enemy’s propaganda. In addition he defied the guards by circulating among the enlisted men and pointing out lies contained in the enemy propaganda designed to slander this country…at the same time he collected the names of many prisoners held in isolated places whom it was suspected that the enemy might attempt to hold after the end of the war. (8)
It’s no surprise that we learned about the considerable efforts made by the Chinese to indoctrinate younger enlisted men.(9) After fielding several interviews with which he provides no transcript, Colonel MacDonald also described the discernment process that other POW Camps went through before finally deciding to participate in these Olympics. He concluded that normally they would have withdrew their participation, due to the potential the event had for being used as propaganda, but “…in the end, the possibility for making contact with other camps and exchanging vital information proved the deciding factor.”(10) This corroborates with Clarence Adam’s testimony earlier when he mentioned that it was a way for prisoners at other camps to see their buddies.
In November 1952, in the region of Pyoktong in North Korea, hundreds of United Nations prisoners captured during two years of fighting were brought together to compete in the “Inter Camp Olympics.” But who could blame prisoners for participating in such an event? Regardless if the whole thing was used for propaganda, in a way, everyone got what they wanted. Furthermore, it wouldn’t exactly be untrue if a majority of the captives enjoyed it. The fact that they were able to compete in physically strenuous events suggests that they were indeed treated at least with some level of nourishment. The extent to which the Communists were able to convert prisoners to their cause was only limited to the likes of Clarence Adams, who were halfway there since they had their grievances about their home country prior to serving as an Allied combatant. The Chinese and North Koreans could say that they were treating the captives well, and the POWs got a chance to see their comrades and live in better conditions for 2 weeks. For the POWs, this was a valuable diversion to the morale-draining prisoner life. In short, it was a fantasy for both parties involved.
Two years ago was not only the year of the 2012 Summer Olympics at London; that November also marked the 60th anniversary of these Inter Camp Olympics. And although the Korean War is a dim memory in much of the world today, perhaps a detailed account of a Communist propaganda exercise, their answer to the real Olympics Games and indeed, one of the strangest events ever to have occurred during wartime, will spark a renewed interest in the conflict whose consequences reverberate on the Peninsula and beyond to this day.
Pictures obtained from various pages of <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm>
(1) Clarence Adams. An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China. Ed. Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2007. Print.
Their defection was regarded as a major public relations victory for the Communists, but Adams never considered himself a turncoat. We can sympathize with him in the sense that he knew that there would be no life for him back in the States; he was a poor black man who would inevitably return to the 1950s South. Eventually he abandoned his life in China and returned to the U.S.
(2) Ibid., 51.
(3) Ibid., 56. We must take Adams words here with some level of suspicion. We learn in his memoir that the found Chinese re-education classes given at his camp compelling, and he was a regular contributor to their propaganda newspaper. As a representative of the camp, perhaps the Chinese thought that if they worked with Adams and gave him some authority he would be swayed to come to their side. Although he never says this outright, his defection points to this being a possibility.
(4) Ibid., 62.
(6) Michael White. “Index to 1952 POW Olympics.” Index to 1952 POW Olympics. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm>
(7) Culturally, although they abandoned some of their old ways in favor of Communism, the Confucian ideology stresses to never express your true intentions and emotions outright, and if you must, to do it ever so subtly.
(8) James A.MacDonald, Jr. The Problems of U.S. Marine Corps Prisoners of War in Korea. Thesis. History And Museum Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Washington, D.C., 1962, 195. <http://www.koreanwar2.org/kwp2/usmckorea/reference/usmcpowkorea.pdf>
(9) Historical records show that these subversive activities were not only done by the Chinese themselves, but by Western prisoners like Clarence Adams who were labeled as “Progressives” and were sympathetic to the criticisms of their own country.
(10) MacDonald, 195.