Graveyard for North’s troops to become memorial

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Graveyard for North’s troops to become memorial

A burial ground in Paju, Gyeonggi, for North Korean soldiers who died fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War will be transformed into a peace memorial, according to Gyeonggi provincial officials.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Monday agreed to transfer all maintenance rights over an isolated cemetery in Paju near the heavily fortified border with North Korea to Gyeonggi through a signing ceremony between its deputy minister, Suh Choo-suk, and Gyeonggi Vice Gov. Lee Hwa-yeong.

Buried in the approximately 5,900-square-meter (1.45-acre) burial site - commonly referred to as the “enemy graveyard” by locals - are the remains of 843 North Korean soldiers who fought and died in the war on the South’s territory.

In 1996, South Korea chose to create a collective graveyard to inter the remains of enemy troops buried in scattered plots across the country in accordance with a clause in the Geneva Convention on the remains of enemy combatants.

The remains of 589 Chinese soldiers who participated in the war on the North’s side were also buried here, though they were since repatriated back to China in 2014 to improve relations with Beijing.

As a new wave of rapprochement warms relations between the two Koreas, Gyeonggi has chosen to take the initiative to reorganize the graveyard into a memorial to symbolize the importance of peace and the painful history of division.

“The historic mission of Gyeonggi is to realize peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung. “The North Korean graveyard will be reborn as a symbol of peace from one of war, and Gyeonggi will do its part to consolidate peace on the peninsula.”

Casualty figures from the Korean War are disputed, but hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed. In the following decades, South Korea has worked to locate and excavate the remains of the war dead, burying the remains of enemy combatants in this mass cemetery.

Last April, seven new sets of remains were brought in to the graveyard and encased in their plots next to rows of headstones, many of them anonymous, with only their excavation dates marked.

The new peace memorial here will serve as part of a larger effort from both Koreas to repair ties by jointly excavating troop remains from the mine-riddled demilitarized zone, as per a military agreement signed in September. The two sides agreed then to each form a military excavation team of around 80 to 100 soldiers by the end of February to begin the joint dig in the DMZ this month.

According to a South Korean government source, the two sides have not yet exchanged the list of excavation team members, though the deadline to do so has already passed.

This could be the result of a disappointing end to the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi last week, which threw cold water on the denuclearization process and may hamper the reduction of military tensions through exchanges like the excavations.

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