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(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. repatriate remains of fallen soldiers from Korean War

All News 17:56 April 28, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS more info in last 7 paras)

SEOUL, April 28 (Yonhap) -- Two United Nations flag-draped caskets were placed into an Army hearse one by one as columns of uniformed servicemen and an honor guard solemnly looked on in a ceremony Thursday to repatriate the remains of South Korean and United States soldiers who were killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and excavated more than 60 years later.

In the one-hour ceremony held inside the U.S. Forces Korea's Yongsan garrison in central Seoul, South Korea delivered the remains of two fallen U.S. soldiers to their home country. The U.S. side returned the remains of 15 South Korean soldiers.

South Korea found the U.S. troops' remains in November 2015 in Yanggu, a mountainous region just below the eastern side of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, where a fierce battle took place during the bloody civil war.

The remains of the 15 South Korean soldiers were excavated by the U.S. in the early 2000s inside North Korea and brought to the U.S. military's war dead excavation agency in Hawaii before they were identified as South Koreans and sent home.

It was the second batch of South Korean soldiers' remains repatriated by the U.S.

In 2012, the first set of remains of 12 South Korean war veterans, found also in North Korea, came home from Hawaii.

Locally, South Korea has excavated the remains of a total of 10,315 Korean War veterans so far in a war dead excavation project that was launched in 2000 before setting aside the remains of 10 of them as Americans.

The Saturday ceremony marked the first time the allies have mutually exchanged the remains of the war dead on the same occasion.

"Well over a million civilians and service members lost their lives defending freedom and democracy here in the Korean Peninsula. Because of their ultimate sacrifice and the veterans' perseverance, the Republic of Korea has become a thriving democracy today with a prosperous economy," USFK Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said in a speech during the ceremony.

"Their sacrifice and opportunity forged its destiny and achieved its dream, and it's our sound duty to properly recognize their sacrifice and fulfill our commitment to return the remains for proper burial in their homeland," the general noted.

Defense Minister Han Min-koo said, "These deceased veterans have finally come home to be buried in the warm bosom of their homeland after staying buried in an unknown mountain valley half a century after the Korean War came to a halt."

Still, some 120,000 South Korean veterans and 8,000 U.S. soldiers remain unaccounted for after joining the war, the minister said, adding, "The South Korean government will make utmost efforts to find the very last veteran lost in the Korean War."

The U.S. was one of 21 countries that sent troops to fight under the banner of the U.N. alongside South Korean soldiers in the civil war against invading North Korean troops allied with China.

About 54,000 American forces perished during the nationwide civil war.

The U.S. believes the remains of 6,000 of those missing may be somewhere in now-inaccessible North Korea while the remaining 2,000 are buried in the South.

Amid a reconciliatory mood with North Korea in the early 2000s, the U.S. forged a mutual agreement with Pyongyang that allowed U.S. forces into the reclusive country to find the remains of their fallen comrades.

By 2005, the U.S. brought out the remains of what were then supposed to be about 400 fallen American soldiers.

In subsequent DNA tests and other identification processes that followed, some repatriated remains were set apart as belonging to South Koreans.

"If North Korea had known that the remains belonged to South Korean soldiers, bringing them out of the country might have been impossible, but fortunately they were moved to the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now named Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) in Hawaii before they finally came back home," the defense ministry said in a statement.


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