Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bring Them Home: Remains of Korean War Heroes

The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History put on a special exhibition of the soldiers who died giving their lives for their families and countries but unfortunately because of the war were buried in the nameless place. The special exhibition is a tribute to these soldiers and to the efforts made to repatriate them to their families … “until the very last [soldier] is found”. (The following commentary is taken from the museum placards and displays.)

Section 1: In memory of those who could not return from the battlefields

Countless young Koreans participated in fighting against North Korea in the Korean War. The Korean War broke out when North Korea launched a surprise attack in the wee hours of June 1950. Around 163,000 Koreans lost their lives. During the war, 29,000 remains were recovered and returned to their families. However, there are 133,000 remains yet to be recovered. The pain of war is not limited to the front lines; it ricochets all the way back home to the family members. Discovering that their loved one had been killed in combat via a single casualty notification letter, the families were forced to live with their loss. The MND Agency for KIA Recovery & Identification (MAKRI, activated in 2007) launched a project to recover and identify the remains of the fallen heroes who are still waiting on the battlefields to be returned to their families. As of 2017, MAKRI has recovered 9,500 remains and has confirmed the identity of 121 remains. MAKRI spares no effort in fulfilling the noble promise and the duty to bring all the heroes back home.

Lives sacrificed for the country

When the Korean War broke out, the ROK Armed Forces had 103,827 soldiers and there were 48,283 police forces. Overwhelmed by the North Korean Army juggernaut, the ROK Armed Forces lost Seoul in three days and was cornered into the defense line at the Nakdong River. The United Nations came to the aid of Korea. Together with the UN Forces, the ROK Armed Forces assault continued north to the Aprok (Yalu or Amnok) River until the intervention of the People’s Republic of China in the war. A series of fierce battles took place all over the peninsula. More than 700,000 people answered the call to serve the country and student soldiers as well as the Civil Defense Corps soldiers were mobilized. Countless young soldiers lost their lives during the course of the war and 130,000 remains are still left behind on the battlefields.

Called to serve the country

At the beginning of the Korean War, there were already 21,478 casualties. The battle of Nakdong River itself caused 14,125 casualties. The number of casualties continued to rise and there was a great need for new soldiers. During the early stages of the war, not only was the ROK Armed Forces unprepared, but it was also ill-trained and ill-equipped to face a surprise attack. It was impossible to properly train new soldiers, including student soldiers, due to the rapidly evolving battlefield situations. In some cases, new soldiers were placed in battlefields only after a few hours of basic shooting training. It was not until August 1950 that the first recruit training center was established in Daegu. The newly recruited soldiers were posted to respective divisions after receiving basic military training for 4-16 weeks. Upon the completion of the basic military training, the soldiers were allowed to spend some time with their families before heading to the battlefields, leaving all the memories behind.

Number of deaths of civilians by province
Damage status to schools
On the front line

As the battles were fought all across the Korean peninsula, the last footprints of the soldiers are spread all over the country [sic]. Fierce battles took the lives of countless young soldiers. One of the war veterans said he lost two comrades in the Battle of Angang in September 1950, burying one comrade across Hyeongsan River and the other one at the 300 height [sic] towards Gyeongju. Another war veteran said he had to continue to fight against the enemy forces right after burying eight squad members in the Inje and Gimhwa in Gangwon-do in the summer of 1953. The ROK Armed Forces fought against the North Korean Army and the Chinese forces. More than half of a century has passed since the last soldier was buried on the battlefields.

Casualty notice

While there were already countless casualties during the early stages of the war and in the defensive battle around Nakdong river, there were more casualties from deadlocked battles on the front after 1951 as well. There were 50,000 casualties during the deadlock period. Both parties kept snatching back hilltops. In October 1952, there was the Battle of White Horse in Cheolwon, Gyeonggi-do. In the battle, the 9th Infantry Division of Korea fought against two divisions from the Chinese forces. The Korean Army had to give up the dominant hilltop position six times, but eventually managed to take and keep the hill after the seventh attempt. While the ownership of the hill continuously changed, it was impossible to collect dead bodies from the battlefield. In the summer of 1953, when the long war had finally ended, families awaited their sons but to no avail. All they received in the end was a casualty notice letter and an MIA (missing in action) confirmation letter.

Section 2: Unforgettable people

How can you forget a comrade left alone in a bullet-riddled trench? When can you fulfill the promised that you would at least take his remains to his family? From right after the war until the 1960s, there were efforts to find the remains of those who had lost their lives in the war. In fact, some of them were found and collected in the Pohang region in 1967. After that, there was no KIA (killed in action) recovery and identification project for a long time. However, the hope and the desire to find those who must not be forgotten has always been there and it led to a new KIA recovery and identification project in 2000. Thinking of the comrades they fought alongside during the war, we have been determined to deliver the promise that is long overdue.

Warfare is ugly ... Remains of cartridges recovered along with remains of some soldiers.
In pursuit of finding those who lost their lives in war

A project on compiling the history of the Korea War was carried out until the 1990s, and information of the battlefields was gathered. It was also suggested that a proactive approach on KIA recovery be introduced as the war generations who were able to provide information on the possible locations of the remains of the fallen soldiers were getting older. Against this backdrop, the Armed Forces commenced a KIA recovery project in Dabu-dong, Chilgok-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do, and the MND Agency for KIA Recovery & Identification was established in 2007. The agency analyzed the memorial tablets and gravestones at the National Cemetery in Seoul and put together a list of main battlefields based on information and advice provided by war veterans and war history documents. At the same time, the agency collected DNA information from the families of the missing soldiers to help in the identification of bodies recovered.

Nameless remains

The KIA recovery process is done as follows. The first thing is the preparation for the KIA recovery. The battle records are analyzed based on the testimonies from war veterans and information offered by local residents, and then the possible recovery sites are surveyed. After looking at traces of battles, such as foxholes, trenches and battle ruins, the specific locations are selected where the recovery mission will take place. After that, recovery and collection begins. An opening ceremony is held before excavating the site to recover the remains of the fallen soldiers. The recovery remains are temporarily placed and kept in paulownia caskets. Now it is all down to identifying the nameless soldiers.

Talking about the day

Along with the remains of around 10,000 soldiers, a few hundred thousand personal artifacts were recovered. There were helmets, rifles, ammunition, casings, bayonet, bayonet cases, belt buckles, raincoats, combat soles, shovels, and whistles. They were worn and eroded as many years have passed. In some cases only the buttons have survived the years as military uniforms with names tags have disappeared. There were traces of everyday items as well. Water bottles. Spoons, plastic combs, toothbrushes, soap cases, bowls, lighters, shoe cream cases, hand mirrors and wrist watches were recovered. Some artifacts conveyed the pain of going separate ways from loved ones. Fountain pens used to write letters to family members, harmonicas that would have made those in the battlefields feel sad and emotional, and necklaces that must have been carried by the owners at all times while they were alive. These bring us back to that day, more than 60 years ago.

Pictured in upper left: small glass bottles with antidotes for illnesses and the ubiquitous mosquitoes. Combat soles, bullets, and plastic spoons were some of the commonly recovered items ... they could withstand the weathering toils of 60+ years in acid soil which has high moisture content.
Section 3: Coming back to long-lost homes and families

The person who has been yearning to be returned to his family is finally returning. There is a welcoming placard in the neighborhood and a soldier knocks on the door of the departed one’s family house. Hearing the trembling voice of the messenger mentioning the name of the fallen hero who has returned to his family in a small box, the family cannot help but cry and caress the box. This is one of the very lucky cases. Around 10,000 remains recovered from all over the country are yet to be identified, by the following process. First, we determine whether the remains belong to the ROK or enemy forces. Thorough identification procedures, which involve equipment such as 3D scanners, take place; then DNA sample is compared with the families’ DNA information saved in our database.

Identifying the names of the fallen

At the discovery sites, friends from foes cannot be distinguished. Remains of the ROK, the UN, the North Korean and Chinese soldiers are often found together at the sites where fierce battles took place. It is likely that all of them have families somewhere far away from the battlefields. It is challenging to tell the difference between the North and South Korean soldiers by simply looking at the remains. The rifles and ammunition found together with the remains are carefully examined. The battle history is thoroughly studied to understand the attack and defense tactics used at the time. For some of the remains reaching the final conclusion, to determine whether it belongs to friends or foe, is sometimes postponed despite careful steps. It is a long journey to find the names of each and every soldier.

Recovered munitions of North Korean and Chinese forces.
Recovered munitions of South Korean forces.
With the power of advanced technology

Once the remains initially are identified to belong to a ROK soldier, they are transferred to the Central Identification Laboratory of the MND Agency for KIA Recovery & Identification for further analysis. Artifacts recovered with the remains are also transferred to the laboratory. When there is an artifact with an identification marker, photo or name, the DNA of the appropriate family is compared to confirm the identity. If there is no artifact found with the recovered remains, the DNA remains is compared with that of all families in the database. As DNA identification technology is highly advanced these days, the technology is used to a great extent. When performing DNA procedures, mt-DNA for material family members is used first and then hn-DNA of paternal family members is used. The mt-DNA method is used to compare the DNA information of the recovered remains with that of a living family member. The success or failure of this identification process depends on collecting DNA samples from family members.

Family members getting back together

Nobody foresaw that their father, older brother or baby brother would return to them. Waiting for 60 years has done that. Was it the lucky dream? Was it the food they served for the ancestors without skipping a year? Now they have the artifacts returned with the remains in front of them. Families share their stories. They show the photos the departed family member had given them before the final battle. They talk about the times passed holding on to the letters and postcards from them. They remember the farewell song their father had sung. They say they finally feel relieved from the lifelong grief of living without their father’s presence. Some remains found in the North were returned to the families after traveling halfway around the world. Each of these stories is heart-wrenching.

The notice of one's family member who was known to have died or gone missing in the war. This box of information was delivered to a family ... the only remains that most would ever get of their family member perhaps forever buried in an unknown nameless site.
Heading to a far-away country

As the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, the remains of the KIAs were recovered and exchanged between both parties. Around 4,000 remains from the UN forces and around 130,000 remains from the Red Army were exchanged during that time. However, there was no full-scale recovery project for the remains of the UN forces, the Chinese forces and the North Korean forces until 2000. Since the MND Agency for KIA Recovery & Identification commenced recovery work, they have found over 10,000 remains, some of which were found to belong to the UN, the Chinese and the North Korean forces. The agency held a mutual repatriation ceremony in 2016 and returned 10 American soldiers to their motherland. They have been repatriating the remains of Chinese soldiers every year since 2014. With the remains belonging to the North Korean forces, they have not been able to return them to North Korea, but they have set up a single cemetery for them in Paju, Gyeonggi-do.

Waiting for decades

The pain of waiting for family members who never returned after the war has been a shared grievance in the country. The ache of waiting, the sadness and the consolation are found in Korean literature, popular songs and films. Many literary works describe the memories of the war through stories and emotions about parting with loved ones, horror and conflicts. Sang Gu’s poem ‘The Poem of Burnt Land’ is one of them. Recording artist In Hyeon’s song ‘Farewell to My Comrade’ had a strong appeal for the affected families. The war has been covered by many films as well. Bongchun Yoon made a film called ‘On the Western Front’, which was about the Allied Forces’ Seoul recovery operation and advance towards the North.

Until the very last person is found

The main building MAKRI is located on the east side of the National Cemetery in Seoul. Elderly people relying on walking sticks who have not been able to find any remains of their family members visit the building. They visit with the shred of hope that the newly recovered remains belong to their lost family members. They do not have many more years left, but they are still hoping to hear the good news before it is too late. To the right of the building is Kuksunjae, a storage place for unidentified remains. The carefully kept 10,000 containers that are stacked together up to the ceiling have numbers instead of names on them. In continuous pursuit of recovering 124,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the war, members of MAKRI walk the valleys and ridges even today.

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