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.

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.