SEOUL, South Korea -- One of the most elusive and maddening mysteries swirling about East Asia concerns the occasional "sightings" of American prisoners of war still supposedly held by North Korea, more than four decades after the end of the Korean War.
Now the mystery is becoming even more elusive and maddening. A defector from North Korea claims to have repeatedly visited a top secret prison camp housing elderly white and black men who, the camp guards told him, were American prisoners of the Korean War.
The latest account is simply one more in a murky and inconclusive mosaic, and many experts are extremely skeptical that North Korea could have -- or would have wanted to have -- kept American prisoners for so long.
But the new descriptions are by far the most detailed to have emerged, and there is a growing sense in the intelligence community that the notion of surviving American prisoners, however outlandish it sounds at first, is a serious possibility.
The new testimony comes from Oh Young Nam, a 33-year-old former police official who escaped to China last October and then went to South Korea.
Oh was the son of a bodyguard to the country's late "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. He graduated from the elite police academy and joined the secret police.
In an interview last week, Oh said that from 1982 to 1993 he repeatedly visited a camp housing the Americans, in a sealed-off area just north of Pyongyang. He said he had never seen more than 20 or 30 Americans at one time, but that there were others in their dormitories and so the total number was probably higher.
Once he and a group of other police officers stopped their car and gave a half-dozen cans of beer to a group of the Americans, who said "thank you" in Korean but did not engage in conversation.
He said he had police friends working in the camp and that they told him the Americans had learned Korean and spoke with a good accent.
Oh said that the Americans, though painfully thin, were relatively well treated. He said they lived in a one-story compound around a central meeting area and that a tennis court was nearby -- although it lacked a net and was overgrown in the years he saw it.
North Korea officials had even found Korean wives for the prisoners, Oh said.
The reports of American POWs were first published last week by Asia Times, a Bangkok-based daily whose reporter spoke with Oh. During the interview last week, Oh said that he had not realized that his conversation with that reporter would be published in a newspaper, and he tried to avoid talking about American prisoners.
"I'll talk about anything else in North Korea, but right now I can't tell you about the American prisoners," he said. "Some time later it may be possible."
Asked if American officials had ordered him not to discuss what he had seen, he refused to say, but he squirmed a lot.
The obstacle was apparently not South Korean officials, for Oh is now being looked after by the South Korean security service, and it could have easily rejected the interview on one ground or another.
Still, Oh gave some details of what he had seen, and he added that he had spoken to American intelligence officials in April and had shown them the prisoner-of-war camp in pictures -- presumably satellite photos.
J. Alan Liotta, deputy director of the Defense Department office responsible for prisoners of war, would not comment on specifics but said that accounts of Americans in North Korea were being carefully checked.
"We are continuing to investigate several reports to corroborate information suggesting there may still be American prisoners from the Korean War being held in North Korea," Liotta said by telephone from Washington.
"To date, we have no first-hand reports."
Liotta said "first-hand" meant that the person interviewed had not only seen Westerners but had talked to them to confirm that they were American POWs and that they wanted to go home.
Senior administration officials, who are trying to reduce tensions with North Korea and entice it out of its isolation, have played down the possibility that American POWs might still be held captive.
But in June an internal Defense Department report was leaked by Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a California Republican, and it caused an uproar by suggesting that a small group of POWs might still be held by North Korea.
"When you talk to working-level intel people, I think it's taken as a given that there are POWs there," said a military intelligence specialist in Washington.
Some 8,100 Americans are missing from the Korean War, and it had been widely assumed that all had died either during the war or soon after it ended in 1953.
A Pentagon official who asked not to be identified said that about a dozen reports of surviving POWs had emerged over the decades and that as a result a more intensive study was begun about a year ago.
That study uncovered several more people claiming to have information on the Americans, the official said.
There is always a danger that defectors may be seeking publicity or U.S. passports, or that they are pushing a line devised by their South Korean guardians.
But an American intelligence expert on North Korea said that South Korea had never pressed an opinion on the POW question, one way or the other.
"This is the first report that I've seen of an alleged first-hand recent sighting of that nature," the expert said.
He added that North Korea could have held on to some prisoners after the war as a bargaining chip, and then after years passed felt it could no longer acknowledge their existence.
North Korea has vigorously denied the assertions, saying in an official statement in June that the accusation "has seriously gotten on our nerves."
The statement added that if the United States pursues the issue, North Korea might revoke its permission for joint excavations to search for bodies of American fliers killed during the war.
Pub Date: 9/08/96