Remains of Korean soldiers killed in NK return home for 1st time
The remains of South Korean soldiers killed in North Korea during the Korean War returned home on Friday via the U.S., marking the first such repatriation of South Korean war dead since the 1953 armistice.
Twelve sets of remains, two of which have been positively identified, were among 226 sets recovered in the northern part of North Korea by a U.S. excavation team between 2000 and 2004, before Washington halted the joint recovery mission with Pyongyang due to concerns over the safety and security of its workers.
After conducting DNA tests, the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii confirmed last August that some of the remains were those of Asian soldiers.
Since then, Seoul and Washington have conducted joint analyses to identify the remains and 12 sets were confirmed to be from South Korean soldiers, officials at Seoul's defense ministry said.
The 12 sets of remains were flown Friday to a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul, where they were met with an honor guard ceremony attended by President Lee Myung-bak, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Army Gen. James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
"The Republic of Korea was defended as they fought at the risk of their lives. We have to find those, even their remains, who sacrificed their lives for the country, to the end. There are no greater patriots than them," Lee told bereaved family members ahead of the official ceremony.
"There are many things to do if unification happens, but this will probably be the first thing we have to do. Finding the remains of those killed while defending the country is an important job we have to do as the first thing."
"It is the first time remains of our soldiers killed in North Korea during the Korean War have been repatriated since the armistice agreement was signed in 1953," said Col. Park Shin-han, chief of the ministry's division for KIA Recovery and Identification.
The return home of the remains is "meaningful as it shows that the nation takes responsibility at any cost for those who sacrificed themselves for the nation," Park said.
Park also thanked the U.S. for its support in excavating and identifying the remains.
The two positive identifications were Privates First Class Kim Yong-soo and Lee Kap-soo, who joined the war as members of the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA). The KATUSA program was launched in the early stages of the 1950-53 Korean War to provide the U.S. forces with soldiers who knew the local terrain and language.
Kim and Lee were listed as missing in action after one of the pivotal battles of the Korean War, the Battle of Jangjin "Chosin" Reservoir in late 1950, officials said.
The battle took place at the man-made reservoir in the northern part of North Korea shortly after China's army entered the war, with more than 100,000 Chinese troops surrounding 30,000 U.N. troops. Although outnumbered by Chinese forces, the U.N. force battled its way through to protect the reservoir, which was the only retreat route for U.N. forces.
According to government data, about 140,000 South Korean troops were killed in action during the three-year conflict that left the Korean Peninsula in ruins, while some 450,000 were injured.
Some 215,000 North Korean soldiers are estimated to have been killed with some 300,000 wounded. Approximately 2.5 million civilians were also killed on the peninsula.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 remains of South Korean soldiers are believed to be buried in North Korea, ministry officials said.