No distinctions among deadLee Myung-bak said in his New Year’s address that he will “proceed with exhuming the bodies of soldiers [who died during the Korean War] through conversation with North Korea.” Should the plan be realized, it will be a landmark development for South-North relations because it will help achieve “truthful reconciliation” on the peninsula.
Finding the bodies of the dead, delivering them to surviving family members and showing respect to them would be the best way to heal the scars of the war.
About 30 percent of the South Korean soldiers who died in the war are presumed to be buried in North Korean territory. But we would also like to add one more proposal, that is, to exhume not only South Korean soldiers but also North Korean soldiers.
Significant progress was made on the issue at the second meeting of defense ministers held in Pyongyang in November 2007. The statement that came out of that meeting read, “Both parties have decided to discuss and resolve issues related to recovering confidence between the two countries and putting an end to the war based on mutual understanding.”
When inter-Korean relations later froze, the execution of the agreement was delayed. However, the situation has entered an entirely new phase with Lee’s remarks.
The best possible way to heal the scars still left by the Korean War would be for both countries to cooperate in the exhumation work across the Korean Peninsula. It is obvious that such a program would greatly help the cause of peace on the peninsula.
Since South Korea officially began exhuming the bodies of the Korean War dead in 2000, a total of 3,367 have been found, including 400 North Koreans and 200 Chinese soldiers.
It is tragic, yet natural, to find both North Korean and Chinese bodies in the course of exhuming the bodies of South Korean soldiers.
That is because the battlefields were dispersed across the peninsula, with no distinction made between South and North Korea. And this is why the exhumation work should be based on cooperation.
The South Korean government has been keeping those bodies and plans to return them to their respective countries in the future. The situation would not be that different if similar work were to be done by North Korea.
The U.S. government has been paying sizable amounts of money to countries around the world to reward them for finding the bodies of their soldiers who fought overseas. Unlike South Korea, North Korea is neither interested nor prepared for such work.
Given this fact, South Korea may have to consider following in the footsteps of the United States. Linking food and fertilizer provisions to the body exhumation work as a reward might be considered.
Some may oppose South Korea cooperating with the North in the exhumation project, given North Korea is responsible for the war. But venting that spite is also an essential part of the process of true reconciliation between the two countries.