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[Weekender] Coming back home, seven decades after war

Seoul pushing to repatriate remains of Korean soldiers who perished in the Korean War from US, while continuing excavation of battle sites here

June 6, 2020 - 16:00 By Choi Si-young
South Korea holds a ceremony to mark the return of Korean War remains retrieved from North Korea at Seoul Air Base on Armed Forces Day, Oct. 1, 2018. (Ministry of National Defense)
Nearly 120 South Korean soldiers who perished during the Korean War may return home later this month, ending a long journey from North Korea via the United States.

Their remains have been kept for nearly two years now at the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency since arriving from the North in July 2018, when Washington received from Pyongyang its war remains that also included Korean soldiers, following their historic first summit in June the same year.

Their belated homecoming, if realized, will be the highlight of a flurry of events and programs that Seoul is preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of the war, which broke out on June 25, 1950, and ended in 1953, without a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

“Our forensic delegation will shortly fly to the agency, and work together with the experts there to sort out the remains of Koreans,” a senior official at Seoul’s Defense Ministry told The Korea Herald.

“We can’t say at the moment exactly how many will return here, but will make sure to bring ours back,” the official said.

The plan is to hold a homecoming ceremony on June 24 at Seoul Air Base, a day before the war anniversary, hopefully with war veterans from abroad and their families observing the solemn procession.

Nothing has been finalized yet though, as the government is still exploring options to best honor the event while reducing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

Efforts to recover war remains here are underway, with an estimated 135,000 soldiers still missing. 

South Korea holds a ceremony to mark the return of Korean War remains retrieved from North Korea at Seoul Air Base on Armed Forces Day, Oct. 1, 2018. (Ministry of National Defense)
Since 2000, the government has been extensively excavating battle sites and recently expanded the project to cover areas including Arrowhead Ridge, a site of fierce battles that now falls inside the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Seoul and Pyongyang, at the third summit in 2018, agreed to cooperate to retrieve the bodies in the DMZ, but have not worked together since, as the North continues to remain mum on the South’s repeated calls to do so. 

The government is also pushing to thank in person war veterans and their families living in Southeast Asia and Oceania on the sidelines of its annual cruise training there from October to December.

“We have in mind about four countries to visit, but haven’t made final decisions,” said a senior Defense Ministry official, noting however, that the ministry was uncertain whether the plan could materialize, due to the pandemic that complicates engagement protocols with those countries and veterans living there.

Delivering veterans letters of gratitude with gifts is an option in case the face-to-face meetings are not possible, but at the moment it is too early to say anything definitively, the official said, adding the government would need support as well from those countries where war veterans settled.

To keep alive the fading memories of the tragedy and solidify commitment to peace, the central and local governments are preparing a number of events as well.

Youth will be invited to walk along the recently paved “peace trail” near the DMZ that separates the two Koreas, to feel the weight of the war. Seoul opened the trail to the public last year following its landmark summit with Pyongyang in April 2018 to defuse tensions on the peninsula.

Guided by the military, a group of 70 volunteers will be given an opportunity to hike the trail at three locations -- in western Paju City, central Cheorwon and eastern Goseong Counties -- all adjacent to the southern side of the DMZ. The event will start in mid-June and end in late September.

The hikers will have a rare chance to set foot on battle fronts previously inaccessible to the public except for few armed military guards.

But the Defense Ministry stressed that the trail walk could be much reduced or changed, because of raging COVID-19 and the recent outbreak of African swine fever near the DMZ.

Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces exercise jurisdiction over the locations, while the US-led United Nations Command oversees DMZ affairs, so arranging the hike poses another challenge of realigning the interests of all parties involved, according to an official from the ministry.

Special exhibitions that provide virtual and augmented reality experiences to visitors are scheduled from last June to early November at the War Memorial near the Defense Ministry in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul.

Visitors will not only interact with key figures from the war in a setting brought by the latest virtual reality and augmented reality technologies but also see some war artifacts, some of which were previously undisclosed to the public.

Also at the memorial center, magicians will narrate the war in a performance using the latest holography technology. A 20-minute show will run for five days from June 23-27.

Stage musical productions, based on the true story of a soldier searching for remains of his missing comrades, will rerun from this month until the end of this year.

By Choi Si-young (