SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea on Friday repatriated the remains of 437 Chinese soldiers killed during the Korean War six decades ago, making a gesture symbolic of warming ties between the two nations.
China sent a flood of soldiers to help its Communist ally North Korea, which invaded South Korea in June 1950. Its intervention saved the North, whose forces had been pushed back toward the country’s northern corner by U.S.-led U.N. forces. The three-year war ended in a cease-fire, leaving the divided Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.
Over the years, when South Korea discovered the remains of hundreds of Communist soldiers in old battle sites, it kept them in a tucked-away, little-known temporary burial ground north of Seoul, until recently known as “the enemy cemetery.”
That it took six decades for the bodies of the fallen Chinese soldiers to return home bore testimony to political uneasiness rooted in a war that was never formally put to rest.
Between 1981 and 1989, North Korea accepted the remains of 42 Chinese soldiers from South Korea and handed them over to Beijing. But it has never been willing to negotiate for the return of its own fallen soldiers. Accepting their return would be seen as a conclusion of the war, which North Korea insists will not be over until Washington signs a peace treaty with it.
A breakthrough came last June when President Park Geun-hye of South Korea visited China to cultivate warmer ties and offered to send the remains home as a goodwill gesture.
The remains of 770 North Korean soldiers still are marooned in the cemetery, their grave markers emblematic of unresolved hostilities. Their graves all face north, looking homeward.