Just a few kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, there is a lone graveyard where 1,000 North Korean and Chinese soldiers killed during the Korean War are buried.
Unlike Korea’s burial tradition, the graves at the enemy cemetery are pointed to the North ― demonstrating the last wish to return home.
Officially known as “Cemetery for North Korean and Chinese Soldiers,” the graveyard in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, opened in 1996 under an international convention that urged nations to treat the bodies of enemies with respect. It rarely has visitors as many South Koreans resent the communist regime. The two Koreas ceased fire in 1953 under an armistice agreement but are technically still at war.
The graveyard, however, is in the public eye again after President Park Geun-hye offered to her counterpart in China that the South would repatriate the remains of 360 Chinese troops killed in the Korean War. The offer made during her official visit to China on Saturday was viewed as a symbolic gesture of friendship toward the former battlefield foe. China fought alongside North Korea against the U.S.-backed Allied Forces during the Korean War. More than 1 million Chinese soldiers were killed in the war, according to historic documents.
Since 1981, the remains of 403 Chinese soldiers have been excavated in South Korea. Some 40 sets have been repatriated through the U.N. Military Armistice Commission. But now with Park’s offer, the remaining 360 Chinese troops are expected to be returned without the presence of a third party. The Korean government plans to return them as soon as its counterpart makes an official request.
The repatriation of the remains of Chinese soldiers has been a thorny issue between China and Korea as it involves North Korea.
North Korea has refused to take back the bodies of its fallen troops as well as rejected demands from the South and its allies to repatriate their soldiers killed on battlefields in the North.
During the Korean War, some 130,000 South Korean soldiers were killed. Of them, the remains of some 30,000 to 40,000 are believed to be in the North or the DMZ.
In 2007, the two Koreas agreed to launch a joint recovery campaign but have since made no serious efforts toward it.
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org)