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All Headlines 10:34 May 31, 2012

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

South Korean Soldiers Killed in North Korea Repatriated for First Time

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After more than six decades, the remains of 12 South Korean soldiers killed in North Korea during the Korean War were returned home last week, the first repatriation of South Korean war dead since the 1953 cease-fire between the two Koreas.

The 12 sets of remains were flown on May 25 to a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul, where they were met with an honor guard ceremony attended by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Army Gen. James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea.

The 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.

It was the first time the remains of South Korean soldiers killed in battles in the North had been returned home since the armistice. While the U.S. military has performed dozens of operations in the socialist country to bring home the remains of its own fallen soldiers, the South has never done so.

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 remains were recovered at former battlegrounds in the North's South Hamgyong Province. 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) program.

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.

Both Kim and Lee served with the 15th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, records showed.

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 greatly 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 the ministry, Kim was born in 1933 in Busan and volunteered to join the military as a student soldier at the age of 18. A son of anti-Japanese activist Kim In-ju, his family remembered him as a young patriot.

After being assigned to the 7th Division to serve as a KATUSA, he marched to the North along with his unit. Kim died in the fierce battle at Jangjin Lake, better known in the United States as the Chosin Reservoir Campaign.

The withdrawal of U.S. Marines from the Chosin Reservoir from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9, 1950, is often considered the fiercest battle in U.S. war history. According to U.S. military records, 25,000 Chinese soldiers and 3,000 Americans were killed in the battle.

Born in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang, in 1916, Private Lee joined the military at the age of 34, leaving behind a wife and two young children. He was also assigned to the U.S. 7th Infantry Division and died in a battle near the Jangjin Reservoir.

His dog tags were found at the site, but his remains were still transported to Hawaii because they were mixed with other excavated remains of American soldiers. According to the ministry, the DNA samples of the 12 remains were cross-checked with 19,000 samples taken from the families of soldiers killed in the Korean War.

The remains of the two fallen privates will be temporarily stored at the ministry's Agency for Killed-In-Action Recovery and Identification at Seoul National Cemetery along with the unidentified remains. After consulting with the families, the two will be interred at the National Cemetery in Daejeon in June.

The ministry said it will also continue working to identify the other 10 sets of remains by analyzing records and DNA samples. After an initial agreement with North Korea in 1993, the United States undertook a series of recovery operations in the communist country from 1996 till 2005.

The most recent operations yielded 226 sets of remains believed to be those of the American forces, including KATUSAs. The U.S. and North Korea agreed in October last year to resume the operation, but have yet to do so.

A ceremony to mark the handover of the South Korean remains took place in Hawaii on May 22, with Korean War veterans from the U.S. and the South in attendance, along with senior military officials. After 20 hours of flying, the remains of the 12 came home, ending exiles of 59-62 years from their homeland.

"I never thought we would be able to find his remains," said Lee Yeong-chan, a 65-year-old son of the late private. When the senior Lee joined the war, his son was only 4-years-old. "I don't have a memory of calling my father," he said in tears.

"The Republic of Korea was defended as they fought at the risk of their lives," the president told bereaved family members ahead of the official ceremony. "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."

"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."

While the United States has sent teams of military specialists to the North since 1996 following painstaking annual negotiations with Pyongyang over terms and payments, the South has a relatively short history of seeking to recover and identify the remains of its fallen soldiers.

A defense ministry report showed that 178,000 South Korean soldiers are buried as Korean War unknowns in the National Cemetery. Another 130,000 South Koreans are unaccounted for from the war.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, the South Korean government began its first project on its own soil in April 2000. As of last year, 6,965 remains were recovered from sites in South Korea. Follow-up analysis later found that 6,003 were South Koreans, while 11 were identified as U.N. forces. The remaining 951 were enemy soldiers killed in battles in the South.

The two Koreas agreed in 2007 during inter-Korean defense ministerial talks that they would jointly recover remains of fallen soldiers, agreeing the mission was a humanitarian necessity.

According to the ministry, the remains of up to 40,000 South Korean soldiers are believed to be located in the North and the Demilitarized Zone.

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, according to government data.

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.

A government official said, "Right after the ceasefire, the North returned some remains of U.N. soldiers in accordance with the armistice agreement," but it stopped in August 1954 and refused to discuss the matter with Seoul.

The U.S., which is tenacious about recovering the bodies of its dead soldiers, finally persuaded the North to let it dig up their remains after some 30 rounds of talks between 1988 and 1993.

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