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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviets Held U.S. POWs, Files Say

WASHINGTON -- Less than two years after the Korean War, a high-level Soviet defector told White House officials that U.S. prisoners of war in North Korea had been taken secretly to Siberia to be exploited for Soviet intelligence purposes, according to a newly declassified U.S. government document.


The document, dated Jan. 31, 1955, and stamped "secret," is not proof that smuggling of POWs -- long denied by the Soviets and now by the Russian government -- actually happened. But it adds weight to claims that it did.


It is the first document to surface from the White House files of President Dwight Eisenhower that names a Soviet official as a source of U.S. suspicions about POW transfers to the former Soviet Union. To this day the government says Moscow has not fully answered questions about POW disappearances during a war in which Soviet intelligence was active in North Korea.


Yury Rastvorov, who defected to the United States in 1954 from his post at the Soviet mission in Tokyo, told Eisenhower administration officials in a private Jan. 28, 1955, meeting that "U.S. and other UN POWs were being held in Siberia" during the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, according to the newly released memo, which is a one-page summary of what Rastvorov said in the encounter.


The document is on file at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. Requests for its declassification were denied in 1991, but last month, in response to renewed requests by The Associated Press and others, it was released.


The memo said Rastvorov claimed to have learned of the POW movements from "recent arrivals -- 1950 to 1953 -- from the Soviet Union to the U.S.S.R.'s Tokyo mission." This apparently was a reference to Soviet mission staff. There was no indication that Rastvorov participated in any POW transfers.


The Pentagon, which has been investigating Soviet involvement with Korean War prisoners, has been aware of the Rastvorov memo since 1993 and considers it credible, said Norman Kass, who directs POW work with the Russians at the Defense Department's POW-MIA Office.


"This represents one more piece" of evidence "from someone we assume to be reliable and certainly knowledgeable" on the issue, Kass said in an interview.


Kass said he wants to verify directly with Rastvorov that the statements attributed to him in the memo are accurate. "We are interested in knowing exactly what he did know."


He apparently knew plenty.


Donald Jameson, who was a branch chief in the Soviet division of the CIA's Operations Directorate in the 1950s, recalled that Rastvorov told him, too, that a number of American POWs from the Korean War had been taken to the Soviet Union.


"My impression is that it was a few -- 10 to 15; they were aviators mostly," Jameson said in an interview. He said Rastvorov proved to be a reliable and valuable source and was one of the most important defectors during the Cold War. "He had a lot to say about relations between the Soviet Union and Korea."


Rastvorov took a new name and identity provided by the CIA after his arrival in the United States. Efforts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.


Rastvorov was at the Soviet mission in Japan from June 1950 -- the same month the Korean War broke out -- until he defected to the United States in January 1954.


He ostensibly was a Foreign Ministry official but actually was a spy, according to a biography released by the Justice Department in August 1954.