Still searching for the dead decades after the war

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Still searching for the dead decades after the war


Nam Sang-ho leads a team at the Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification that reunites the remains of missing Korean War soldiers with their families. [KIM SANG-SEON]

Nam Sang-ho is a seeker of the dead. His job is to reunite families with the remains of soldiers killed in action, or KIA, during the 1950-53 Korean War. As part of the Ministry of National Defense’s Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification, his team has reunited the remains of 128 fallen soldiers with their families.

Nam graduated from the Korea Army Academy in 1988 and led a reconnaissance platoon before taking charge of storing and organizing military documents and records. The experience made him well-versed in major Korean battle sites, and in 2012, the Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification invited him to join its mission of recovering the war dead.

“I may not be in uniform,” Nam said, “but I’m still devoted to honoring those who died for the country.”

The last soldier whom Nam helped reunite with his family was Pvt. Yoon Gyeong-hyuk, who was killed in South Pyongan Province, North Korea, while serving in the South Korean augmentation to the U.S. forces.

In 2001, the North and the United States did a joint excavation of soldiers killed in action. During that search, Yoon’s remains were found and transported to the United States. Next month, they will return to South Korea.

At a repatriation ceremony earlier this month, Yoon’s eldest son was at a loss for words when the defense minister presented him with his father’s identification tags and a plaque of consolation.

“I felt so sorry for the son,” Nam said, tearing up. “He’s never seen his own father. This isn’t my first time seeing something like this, but it still makes me eat my heart out.”

After the ceremony, Nam headed down to Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang, to match the DNA of another soldier’s remains with that of his family.

“So many of our soldiers are still lonely and buried in our mountains,” Nam said. “The bereaved are lonely, too. The war has left so many scars, and I wish to do as much as I can to heal them.”

Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Nam at his office at Seoul National Cemetery, southern Seoul.

Q. How big is the project?

. During the Korean War, 162,000 soldiers died, and among them, 29,000 are buried in national cemeteries. About 10,000 remains have been recovered, but 123,000 are still lost.

And 128 have returned to their families.

The excavation process began in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It started as a temporary project, but it became long term in 2007 with the establishment of the Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification.
My team specializes in searching for families. We search for relatives of those killed in action, do the legwork, collect DNA samples, compare them with the remains and hold a repatriation ceremony when we conclude that the samples match. The remains are kept in the Central Identification Laboratory until they are identified. Identified remains are honored at a national cemetery.

Sounds like old military records might be important.

Definitely. We have to draw from lists of soldiers killed in action, personnel records and burial reports. We make sure to compare multiple sources because old records tend to be incorrect. Everything’s computerized now, but we had to sift through old folders first. Some people don’t even have the most basic records. For us, it’s like putting together a puzzle. I sift through so many kinds of records every day at work.

Only 128 of the 133,000 soldiers lost have been reunited with their families.

It’s been more than 60 years since the end of the war. More and more family members are growing old and dying. Some soldiers didn’t leave behind children. We’re trying to get DNA samples from as far as third cousins on both sides of the soldiers’ families, but there’s a limit to that. To check for all 130,000 lost soldiers, we need samples from 130,000 families, but we’ve only secured 40,000 samples, including those of people who submitted more than once. We’ve only collected 24 percent of the families’ DNA.

Sounds like there is a lot more work to do.

My team of eight scours the country every day. We try our best to collect every DNA sample. We call families before visiting them on weekends, and we’re often mistaken for voice phishing scams or fraud. We’ve even had the police called on us. But that’s nothing compared to the pain that these families go through.

The anniversary of the Korean War must feel more special to you.

My thoughts are only on the families waiting day and night to be reunited with the soldiers. About 50 to 60 people contact us regularly hoping for good news. They’re all desperate. Every day, even on weekends, I go to a shrine at the Seoul National Cemetery where there’s a memorial for unknown soldiers. I try to console anyone who comes through to grieve their lost family.

Is there a reason you started working for the war dead?

When I was a captain at the Busan Army Archives, I went back to my hometown in Miryang, South Gyeongsang, and heard a story about an old man suffering from his wounds from the Korean War. He couldn’t receive any benefits from the government because there was no record of his participation. I sifted through clinical diaries with seven other soldiers and found his records clipped in between another soldier’s documents. That was a very rewarding experience. I felt that I had found my mission.

You don’t get much credit for it, though.

Our prosperity now is all thanks to these people. The government needs to take complete responsibility for anything that happens to these soldiers. It needs to try its best to honor its veterans, down to the very last one. We just want to ask for more active cooperation from families and anyone else who knows where missing soldiers are buried. All we need for a DNA sample is some cooperation and a cotton swab.

Looks like there’s a long way to go.

Even if we find 1,000 bodies a year, it would take us 120 years to find all the lost soldiers. Statistically, we end up finding one body for every 170 sites we excavate. So finding everybody would be physically impossible.
Finding families is hard as well. The United States has 90 percent of its war dead’s DNA on file, but we have less than 2 percent. We really don’t have enough data.

It’s only been 18 years though.

All this has become possible because the country doesn’t need to focus on surviving anymore. But I’m still hoping for a more scientific workflow and more personnel.

There is more interest in excavating remains these days. President Moon Jae-in said he would “call for excavations in the demilitarized zone once South-North relations improve.”

An estimated 10,000 South Koreans’ remains are buried in the demilitarized zone. They’re probably in very good condition, too, since no one’s really touched that land. Of course, what happens could change with the political atmosphere, but I’m hoping for good news. Removing all the land mines would be a lot of work, though.

I imagine people should avoid using this project for political gain.

The Korean War is not over yet. The war will only truly end and peace can only truly come when more lost soldiers return to their families. We can never do enough to pay back for the sacrifice they made for us. We need to give them their peace back. That’s the meaning behind all this excavation. That’s why I hang on to this job, even when other people tell me I’m too tenacious.

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