The Last Casualties

It was the summer of 1953.After three years of brutal fighting, the Korean War had ended in an edgy truce. As the troops stood down, prisoners of war were exchanged. U.S. Army Cpl. Roger Armand Dumas, 22, almost made it to freedom. A POW since November 1950, he was brought to a repatriation point along the front line. Then, as other American prisoners were being handed over, eyewitnesses saw two Chinese guards lead Dumas away. There's been no sign of him since. The Pentagon thinks he may have died in 1954. But his brother, Bob, 70, doesn't believe it. He keeps hounding Washington for news of the missing soldier. And now that the reclusive North Koreans are beginning to crack open their borders to foreign visitors, he's feeling optimistic. "I'll finally be able to travel to Pyongyang, just like I've always wanted to do," he says. "Maybe it's 50 years too late. But then, it's never too late to learn the truth."

Korea is the cold-war conflict that hasn't ended yet. It began, a half-century ago this month, when communist North Korea invaded the South. First America intervened, under the banner of the United Nations, then China came in, and eventually the fighting stopped more or less where it had started, along the 38th parallel. In the absence of a peace treaty, the demilitarized zone between North and South became one of the tensest, most heavily defended strips of land in the world.

The long stalemate that followed may now be entering its final days. This week, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is in Pyongyang for a three-day summit with North Korea's enigmatic Kim Jong Il--the first time leaders of the two governments have ever met. The United States is prepared to ease its economic sanctions on North Korea, which is suffering from another round of drought and hunger. Meanwhile, Pyongyang is accelerating its cooperation with Washington in the effort to resolve the status of American servicemen still unaccounted for in Korea--more than 8,100 of them, quadruple the number in Vietnam. Many of the 8,100 presumably died in battle, their bodies unrecovered from territory controlled by the communists. In an agreement negotiated last week, the two sides scheduled a new search for remains beginning on June 25, the 50th anniversary of the war's outbreak.

But what about POWs who didn't come home after the truce? When the war ended, 21 U.S. prisoners publicly chose to stay with their captors--"brainwashed," said the Americans. Hundreds more may have been kept against their will. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin's archives yielded an extraordinary exchange of telegrams among Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the North Korean strongman Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader. Toward the end of the war, the Chinese suggested that if American prisoners were to be repatriated, "at least 20 percent should be held back." Mao thought he could use the prisoners as political pawns in support of his efforts to win a U.N. seat and diplomatic recognition from Washington.

There may have been an even more sinister use for the prisoners. Jan Sejna, a Czech general who defected to the United States in 1968, told Pentagon investigators he had been personally involved in a Soviet project that conducted medical experiments on American prisoners at a secret hospital in North Korea. Testifying before Congress in 1996, Sejna said as many as 100 "human guinea pigs" were later shipped to the Soviet Union for more tests. Others, he said, were killed and cremated in North Korea.

When the war ended, Roger Dumas was being held in a Chinese POW camp in North Korea. Many years later, Ciro Santo, a POW who made it home, said he saw Dumas as the prisoners were being prepared for repatriation. He said Dumas looked "healthy, not wounded" but was escorted by two Chinese guards. After his brother didn't come home, Bob Dumas promised their dying mother he would "spend the rest of my life to find out what happened to Roger." He joined the Army and volunteered for duty in South Korea, hoping to find some clues. Later, he stalked the halls of Congress, badgered the Pentagon and sued the U.S. government seeking official recognition of his brother's status as a POW. On 27 occasions, he met with diplomats from North Korea, where Roger was seen last. He says one of them told him that if he was serious about finding his brother, "you must convince your government to negotiate with us for him."

For years after the war, Washington picked up inconclusive bits of intelligence about surviving POWs. A 1989 report from an intelligence program known as Stony Beach said 11 POWs were teaching English to North Korean soldiers and spies in the late '80s. Another report cited an intelligence source as saying that POWs were working as language instructors at a North Korean military officers' school in 1990.

The quantity and apparent quality of the reports began to improve when, starting in the early 1990s, famine forced thousands of North Koreans to flee to China or South Korea. One defector, a former secret-police officer named Oh Young-nam, said that between 1982 and 1993, he repeatedly visited a prison camp north of Pyongyang inhabited by elderly whites and blacks whose quarters bore a sign that said "USA." Refugees reaching China also told tantalizing stories about American prisoners. "Since 1996, there have been firsthand reports of American POWs from the Korean war still living in the North," a U.S. official told NEWSWEEK. The people who told the most persuasive stories, he added, got very close to the purported Americans--"like, in the same building."

Early on, the Pentagon presumed that Roger Dumas and prisoners like him most likely died soon after the end of the war. But in 1984, Bob Dumas got confirmation from Washington that his brother was still officially considered a POW. Twelve years later, a Pentagon researcher named Insung Lee wrote an internal memo describing the new refugee reports as "very compelling." Lee concluded that "as many as 10 to 15 possible American POWs could be alive" in North Korea. He said "there are too many live-sighting reports to rule out" the possibility that some prisoners survived. When Lee was summoned to testify before Congress, the Pentagon said he spoke only for himself. Today, Lee insists: "My stance has not changed. I stand by my report."

Bob Dumas's hopes began to soar last year. That's when the White House asked the Chinese government for any information it had on 44 Americans, including Roger Dumas, who were known to be alive and in Chinese custody before the Korean truce was declared. "Roger Dumas remains unaccount-ed for, and no one's abandoned the search," says Larry Greer, a Pentagon spokesman. "We want to know what the Chinese might know." Beijing says it will allow American researchers to review some of its records and interview prison guards who served in North Korea.

Last week, Bob Dumas got a phone call from the Army Casualty Office. The agency "is preparing a full report on my brother," he said excitedly. "Within 10 days! I just know something's going to give. I can feel it!" With signs of a thaw developing between North and South, Bob Dumas declared: "I've never felt so much hope as I do today." A reunion with a long-lost brother may be too much to hope for. Bob still cannot accept the idea that Roger may be dead. But any concrete evidence about his fate could finally release the family from 47 years of bitter pain.