Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

22 - The Korean War (1950–1953) and the Treatment of Prisoners of War

from Part III - Practice and Application of International Humanitarian Law


One of the most important principles in international humanitarian law (IHL) is distinction. The principle states that civilians and combatants are not to be treated the same way. Civilians are not legitimate military targets. They are not supposed to be taking part in hostilities. If such a civilian participates in hostilities during armed conflict, he or she may lose his (or her) privilege as a civilian and become a legitimate military target for such time as they do. On the other hand, combatants are legitimate targets for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. However, assuming the combatant operates within IHL, he (or she) will be immune from legal responsibility concerning results which his (or her) violent act brings about during armed conflict. This is the ‘combatant immunity’ or ‘combatant privilege’. To take it further, even though combatants may be captured by the adversary, they may not be punished because of hostile acts which are nevertheless lawful. In an international armed conflict (IAC), such persons enjoy prisoner of war (POW) status at that moment. But if the combatant intentionally kills or tortures civilians or POWs, then he or she would be committing war crimes (grave breach), and that must be prosecuted. It does not mean the POW status is lost.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO