(Yonhap Feature) Special team on arduous mission to recover Korean War remains
By Kim Eun-jung
INJE, South Korea, June 25 (Yonhap) - A near-complete human skeleton lies on its side. M-1 ammunition, a copper button and a shaving brush are nearby. The body was buried shallow in a hill in this remote mountainous region, just south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
This is where a fierce battle during the Korean War took place from June through July in 1951, in which South Korean Marine Corps defeated North Korean soldiers in a late-night ambush.
"The two holes in his head skull look like gunshot wounds, and he may have died from them," Army Lt. Col. Ju Kyung-duk told a Yonhap News Agency reporter during a visit to a war remains excavation site in Inje, Gangwon Province.
"Judging from the depth of the burial and his posture, it seems that his comrades didn't have enough time to give him a decent burial during the battle."
It's been six years since the former artilleryman transitioned to the Ministry of National Defense's Agency for Killed in Action Recovery and Identification (MAKRI) to recover war remains and repatriate the bodies of soldiers to their families, many of whom have been waiting over 60 years to hear word about their deceased or missing loved ones.
Starting in 2000, the Army began to mobilize soldiers on a three-year-old mission to find war remains. With widespread public support, the government established an official team in 2007 of Special Forces with expertise in history, forensic science and archeology. MAKRI is made up of all branches of the South Korean military as well as civilian experts, united in the goal to bring back soldiers missing in action.
The agency was modeled after the U.S. special unit named Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), whose mission is to account for Americans listed as prisoners of war (POWs), or missing in action (MIA), from all past wars and conflicts.
MAKRI has been conducting operations nationwide to find the remains of the 130,000 soldiers still unaccounted for out of the 160,000 who are classified as missing or killed during the Korean War. About 8,300 bodies have been recovered since 2000, but only 82 of them were able to be return to their families. The rest of the remains are stored in a laboratory without a name tag.
"A recovery operation of war remains is like finding a needle in the Han River," Ju said, referring to the river that runs through the capital city of Seoul. "But we can't stop this work because these soldiers made sacrifices for this country and we should appreciate their service."
A mission can be initiated in many different ways, like by a tip from a veteran who remembers where he lost a fellow soldier during a hectic battle, or even by a hiker who finds remains while climbing a mountain.
Most of the time, investigations begin with old war records or historians searching through military records. Once the MAKRI designate a site, armed forces dig trenches in some of the more remote locations and high peaks and recovery operation team members carefully comb battle sites to preserve the remains and other materials.
Wars are often fought far from the comforts of home, and the recovery teams sometimes camp at a dig site for months. The end result -- finding a service member who'd been lost for decades -- makes it all worthwhile.
"It's really, really hard to find war remains. It takes time and effort," Ju said. "Without DNA samples that match those of war remains, however, there is no other way but to keep them in the lab."
While it's easier to identify American soldiers due to their name tags engraved with the soldier's name and unit, Ju says South Korean soldiers killed in the first year of the Korean War are hard to identify because they died without identification. South Korean soldiers in some units received name tags like the ones the American soldiers had, but only after 1951.
It's even harder to identify very young soldiers who were conscripted before they married because DNA samples are needed from close blood relatives.
While the unit has conducted campaigns to collect more DNA samples, with about 25,000 people having provided samples in the form of oral epithelial cells and blood, the MAKRI says it needs more to name the recovered remains stored in its investigation lab.
Recovery sites can be grueling. In sites where artillery pieces are found, there are fractured bones scattered all over the area. It is not uncommon for bones to have been penetrated by tree roots, which absorb nutrition from them to blossom in spring.
"I don't say we are looking for fragments of bones to recover war remains," Ju said. "I say we are searching for the 'buttress' of our nation as these bones are of those who fought for this country."
Lee Yong-seok, a retired Army Lt. Col. who works for the excavation team, says he felt terribly sad when he first saw the bones of the war dead when he started the recovery operation in 2000 with only eight soldiers.
"When I first witnessed the war remains, tears came to my eyes," said the tanned-faced Lee, who has traveled across the nation for the last 13 years in this service. "However, I soon realized that I was not there to lament. I was there to recognize the true face of our history."
Lee is passionate about calling attention to the sacrifice of his countrymen, telling young Koreans and foreigners who took a trip to the site that South Korea could become one of the world's leading economies based on the sacrifices of the Korean soldiers as well as the American-led U.N. forces which fought the war 60 years ago.
"I can imagine it was a tough decision for South Korean soldiers to go to war to fight for their own country. And it would have been even harder for foreigners to engage in a war at the risk of losing their lives," Lee said. "We should not forget our history and appreciate their sacrifices."
The scene of holes in the earth, having been dug to find war remains, was equally moving to the foreigners who visited the site to gain a rare glimpse of the bare face of the brutal battle.
Melesse Zenebework from Ethiopia said the human bones lying sideways would be something that will stay with him for a long time.
"I was very touched that the soldiers fought for the war and lying here today," the graduate student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies said, after having paid his respects in a solemn of moment of silence in front of a burial site before taking a close look at one of the human bones.
The 27-year-old says he is somewhat related to the Korean War through his father who fought in it as part of U.N. forces in the eastern lake city of Chuncheon. His father, now 87, used to tell him how his buddy died in front of his eyes when they were hit by bullets.
"I know how my father felt about the war and how much he wanted to come back here," Zenebework said.
Ross McNeil, 28, from England said it is good the South Korean government takes the excavation work seriously, and that it is important to recover the remains of soldiers who went missing during the war.
"It's just sad that the soldiers who were probably younger than me now were killed during the battle," said McNeil who majored in history. "It's important to find soldiers who fought for the war, give them a decent burial and repatriate them to their home."
The special team does not know how long it will take to recover all the bodies of those who went missing during the war, but it is a mission this unit says it will never tire of.
"We will continue this mission to count every dead body in the Korean War," Ju said.