[VIEWPOINT]Our soldiers’ bodies must be foundI went to the exhibition of articles held by departed Korean War soldiers last week at Seoul Station. The rusty and shabby steel helmets and swords brought up images of sorrowful and ghastly battles. The fountain pen that provided material for the movie “Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War,” a Japanese coin carried by a Korean student soldier who had lived in Japan, buttons from U.S. military uniforms and a North Korean soldier’s buckle are all silent witnesses to the tragedy of war.
The Korean Army has only found the remains of 1,090 soldiers who died during the Korean War. This is an outrageously small number, considering that a total of 130,000 soldiers died. An innumerable number of the departed war heroes still lie in unknown mountains and fields, waiting for the day they are brought home. Of the 51 bodies identified, only 20 went home to their family members. It is pitiful that although the bodies could see the light after lying under the ground for half a century, they are still not able to go to their eternal resting place.
It is only natural that the war dead excavation project ended up with such a poor record. After all, Korean society, including all previous governments, has never really cared about finding the bodies. The excavation project was launched in 2000 as part of the commemorative events of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.
The project was limited to a three-year period. However, because the results within that period were poorer than expected, the government changed it into a permanent project. Even still, there has been no change in the slow progress of the work.
After a year, a special remains excavation team of the Army was formed, though it only had 20 soldiers.
The government plans to expand the team and put it under the Ministry of National Defense next year. It is unknown how much the team will be expanded and with how much passion the ministry will promote the project.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Korean government made little progress and did not pursue the project thoroughly from the beginning to the end, as the U.S. government did.
Nobody will call Korea a “right and respectable country” if the government does not care for those who died or went missing in action while serving the country. The special TV programs broadcast on Memorial Day, which introduced tragic stories of the families of those who died or are missing in action, reminded us of the importance of the project.
One widow remembered that when she heard the news that her newlywed husband was killed in action after joining the army as a student soldier, she cried under the covers of her quilt until her eyes were swollen, because she was afraid her in-laws would scold her if she cried out loud.
She said her wish was to “find at least one piece of my husband’s bones and bury it in the national cemetery.”
One soldier sent a letter to his wife before he died in action saying, “I will return home when the bells of peace are heard everywhere throughout the country after we defeat the enemy, so please raise our newborn son well until I return home.” Another widow still keeps the letters she wrote for 10 years, longing for her husband.
Since the outbreak of the Korean War, 56 years have passed. However, it does not mean the government is free from its obligation to the departed soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the country. Their remains are not just bits of bones, but the pillars of the Republic of Korea of today. This is the reason why the government has to put all its energy into the excavation of their remains.
For the success of the project, it is essential to get the cooperation of the residents of the area and veterans of the Korean War, who can give information on battlegrounds and burial sites.
Therefore, it is more important than anything else to establish a communication network with these people before they get older.
It is also urgent to establish a system of smooth cooperation with related organizations, by providing legal grounds for the excavation project. If such preparations are not made, there is a high chance that the project will come to the miserable stage of not being able to be carried out, even if the government wants it to be.
Needless to say it is not an easy project, but if only a small portion of the passion that goes into the digging up the past history or supporting North Korea can be put into this project, I am sure we will get good results.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ahn Hee-chang
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?