Staying behind after the Korean War

Posted By: Nick Jackson

Posted: April 26, 2013

Korean refugees aboard a US Navy vessel, 1952

The apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of North Korea in recent weeks has reminded us all not only that the Korean War is, officially, still going on (although a ceasefire was concluded in 1953, the two sides have never signed a peace treaty) but of the particular combination of malevolence and apparent lunacy that characterises the Kim family’s regime. Since hostilities between the two Koreas began, more than 46,000 people have succeeded in leaving North Korea for the South; what is perhaps more interesting is that a handful have seen fit to go the other way.

About half the Northern defectors were prisoners of war in the South who exercised their right to refuse repatriation. The 351 United Nations POWs who did the same were mainly South Korean, but amongst them were 22 Americans and a single Briton, Royal Marine Andrew Condron, whose case as covered in our resource Foreign Office Files for China has recently piqued my interest. Numerous letters, telegrams and memoranda go back and forth over a number of years between the Foreign Office, the Admiralty, the government of Hong Kong and the British embassy in Beijing, enquiring as to Condron's activities, his legal status should he return to Britain, his mental state and his attitude to his Chinese hosts, who had taken him prisoner but amongst whom he now lived, apparently willingly, as an ordinary civilian.

After leaving North Korea for China Condron found work as a translator in Beijing, where Whitehall began to take an interest in him in the late 1950s. Although regarded as a deserter and assumed at first to have been brainwashed, it seems actually to have been inquisitiveness which motivated him to stay. In 1955 Condron had been described in Peace News as wanting to familiarise himself thoroughly with Chinese conditions, and the following year the FO asked two European journalists who had met him to pass on their impressions: he was a lively, intelligent man, they reported, seemingly undecided about the merits of communism.

A Foreign Office minute outlining the history of the Condron case, from FO 371/158417 (1961)

By 1961, Condron was applying for a British passport, apparently tired of life in China and of government disapproval of his marriage to a Franco-Chinese diplomat’s daughter; his passport application is included in the Foreign Office records. Naval legal officers now enquired what had happened to the US ‘defectors’ who had since returned. Though they learned the answer was nothing – since they had been dishonourably discharged from the army in 1953, they were legally civilians – the Admiralty maintained that Condron would be arrested when he set foot on British soil, leading him to speculate that the cheapest way for him to travel would be via Hong Kong, held prisoner in a warship. He left for Britain in October 1962, though the records do not state by what means.

After that, he drops out of the files. No longer in China, he presumably ceased to be of interest to British diplomats there. But some submissions to ‘Notes and Queries’ on the website of the Guardian state that Condron settled in London, sold encyclopaedias door-to-door and then became a journalist, and died in 1996, having never faced any charges stemming from his adventures.

The end of the fighting in Korea did not see the end of Western soldiers choosing life under communism. A tiny number of US servicemen have deserted across the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas since 1953: one, James Dresnok, still lives in Pyongyang. But Andrew Condron retains the odd distinction of being the only Briton to do so, the sole name in a tiny footnote in the history of a conflict that is now well into its seventh decade.

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Nick Jackson

I work as an editorial assistant for Adam Matthew Digital, an online publisher of primary sources in the humanities based in Wiltshire, UK. My main field of work is with British diplomatic documents, but I've helped build projects featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.

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