Han Byung-soo, 82, watches news on TV at a care house on July 10, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. Han escaped from a coal mine in North Korea in 2004. (Shin Woong-jae/For The Washington Post)

Sixty years ago this month, a 21-year-old South Korean soldier named Lee Jae-won wrote a letter to his mother. He was somewhere in the middle of the peninsula, he wrote, and bullets were coming down like “raindrops.” He said he was scared.

The next letter to arrive came days later from the South Korean military. It described a firefight in Paju, near the modern-day border between the North and South, and said Lee had been killed there in battle. His body had not been recovered.

“We never doubted his death,” said Lee’s younger brother, Lee Jae-seong. “It was the chaos of war, and you couldn’t expect to recover a body.”

But Lee was not dead. Rather, he had been captured by Chinese Communists and handed to the North Koreans, who detained him as a lifetime prisoner, part of a secretive program that continues 60 years after the end of the Korean War, according to South Korean officials and escapees from the North.

Tens of thousands of South Korean POWs were held captive in the North under the program, penned in remote areas and kept incommunicado in one of the most scarring legacies of the three-year war. South Korean officials say that about 500 of those POWs — now in their 80s and 90s — might still be alive, still waiting to return home. In part because they’re so old, South Korea says it’s a government priority, though a difficult one, to get them out.

Lee Sun-woo, 82, and Kim Kyung-hee, 40, hold their hands and burst into tears at a care house on July 10, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. Lee was captured by Chinese Communists in July 14, 1953, thirteen days before the armistice of the war and had been detained as a life time prisoner in a coal mine until he escaped from North Korea in 2006. Kim escaped from North Korea in 2012, and her late father, Kim Woo-yong, had been prisoned in the same coal mine with Lee from 1953 to 2004. Lee and Kim meet each other for the first time since their escapes from North Korea. (Shin Woong-jae/For The Washington Post)

Almost nothing was known about the lives of these prisoners until 20 years ago, when a few elderly soldiers escaped, sneaking from the northern tip of North Korea into China and making their way back to South Korea. A few dozen more followed, and they described years of forced labor in coal mines. They said they were encouraged to marry North Korean wives, a means of assimilation. But under the North’s family-run police state, they were designated as members of the “hostile” social class — denied education and Workers’ Party membership, and sent to gulags for even minor slip-ups, such as talking favorably about the quality of South Korean rice.

When the war ended with a July 27, 1953, armistice agreement that divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, about 80,000 South Korean soldiers were unaccounted for. A few, like Lee Jae-won, were presumed dead. Most were thought to be POWs. The two Koreas, as part of the armistice, agreed to swap those prisoners, but the North returned only 8,300.

The others became part of an intractable Cold War standoff, and the few POWs who have escaped say both Koreas are to blame. The South pressed the North about the POWs for several years after the war, but the issue faded from public consciousness — until the first successful escape of a POW, in 1994. The North, meanwhile, has said that anybody living in the country is there voluntarily.

South Korea took up the POW issue with greater force six years ago, as it became clear that a lengthy charm offensive — known as the Sunshine Policy — wasn’t leading the North to change its economic or humanitarian policies. During a 2000 summit with Kim Jong Il, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung didn’t even bring up the issue. But by 2007, the South was talking about the POWs in defense talks. And by 2008, under conservative President Lee Myung-bak, South Korea offered aid to win the prisoners’ release.

But with relations between the two governments badly frayed, the countries haven’t discussed the issue since military-to-military talks in February 2011.

“Time is chasing us,” said Lee Sang-chul, a one-star general at the South Korean Ministry of National Defense who is in charge of the POW issue.

But without North Korea’s cooperation, Lee said, the South has little recourse to retrieve its soldiers. Lee said that, realistically, the POWs have only one way to return home: They have to escape.

Hopes that withered

So far, about 80 have.

They gather for annual dinners in the South, and some meet for regular card games. They’ve been given overdue medals and overdue apologies. They’ve testified about the POWs they know who are still in the North. They’ve shaken hands with the president. They’ve received major compensation payments — about $10,000 per month, over five years.

The returnees have encountered all varieties of surprise, both bitter and grand, as a half-dozen of them described in recent interviews. One escapee, Lee Won-sam, was married just before the war and reunited with his wife 55 years later. But many left families in the North only to find alienation in the South. The POWs, like others in the North, were told for decades that the South was impoverished and decrepit — and their arrival in the South revealed the extent of that deception while also dropping them into incomprehensible prosperity. A handful lost money in frauds, South Korean officials say.

“I thought South Korea had lots of beggars under the bridge and everybody lived in shacks,” said Lee Gyu-il, 80, who escaped in 2008.

Many escapees say that after the war, they were initially hopeful that the South would secure their return. That hope withered in 1956, when the North assembled the prisoners and told them about Cabinet Order 143, which turned them into North Korean citizens — albeit those of the lowest rank. They were told to be thankful that they had been welcomed into a virtuous society.

“Sadly, there was no real change in our daily lives,” Yoo Young-bok, who escaped in 2000, wrote in his memoir, which has been translated into English. “We went right on toiling” in the mines.

‘He lived a false life’

Those who have escaped acknowledge their luck. It wasn’t easy for them to flee. Some had to travel for days through the North and then dart across a river forming the border with China — at an age when some had trouble running. Brokers helped guide them but also charged them more than the going rate for defectors, knowing that the escapees would receive large payments after settling in the South.

They know a few who are still stranded in the North. Most of the former prisoners have died from mining accidents, disease, execution, famine and old age.

In Lee Jae-won’s case, it was liver cancer. It was 1994, and he was 63. After being captured by the Chinese and handed to the North, he had worked for four decades in a mine at the northernmost point of the peninsula, near the Russian border. He’d married a woman with one eye — a fellow member of the hostile class — and had four children, all of whom were ridiculed by teachers and classmates for their family background.

But only as Lee’s health deteriorated in his final months did he tell his children, for the first time, the details of his earlier life. He gave one son, Lee Ju-won, the names of family members in the South, as well as an address: the home in which he was raised.

“So after I buried him, I decided to go there,” Lee Ju-won said.

It took him 15 years to defect. Two days after Lee Ju-won was given his South Korean citizenship, he traveled to his family’s home town, Boeun. His relatives still owned the original property, though the home had been demolished and rebuilt.

During that visit, Lee Ju-won learned that his family had celebrated his father’s birthday every year and always set aside a rice ball for him at the New Year’s feast. He also discovered his father’s letter from Paju, written weeks before the armistice, which a relative had saved.

Lee Ju-won learned that his father, before the war, had been rebellious and talkative — characteristics he stifled in the North, though he passed them on to his son.

“It turns out my dad was a lot like me, though he didn’t show it,” Lee Ju-won said. “He was admired in North Korea, because he worked hard and didn’t do anything wrong. But he lived a false life. He knew one slip of the tongue could harm our whole family. So he never talked about South Korea.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.