In rare break in tension, North Korea returns 33 bodies from the 1950s


PANMUNJOM, Korea -- A picture of a woman with a boy in the background, a safety razor, four buttons, a camouflage net.

These were part of a short list of small items, carried to the grave by 33 servicemen who fought and died under the United Nations flag four decades ago during the Korean War. The possessions and the bodily remains were finally returned yesterday, in a quiet ceremony at Panmunjom, in the demilitarized nether-world meeting place between North and South Korea.

On North Korea's side each coffin was opened, an inventory read, and then the casket was re-closed. The coffins were then lifted by four North Korean soldiers and carried to the thin concrete strip separating their country from the rest of the world. On the other side, four soldiers stood waiting, one each from the United States, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea, representing the joint U.N. forces that fought in the Korean War.

"Those fallen patriots whom we receive back to freedom gave life for liberty," said a U.S. Army chaplain, Maj. James Himmelsbach, in a brief service. "May they be at rest as they journey back to their families."

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, the United States and more than a dozen other countries that jointly took part in the Korean War have petitioned the North for these remains with little success. Yesterday's precise, quiet service, however, was the third in two weeks, representing a small, symbolic concession by the North at a time when many figures in the Clinton administration have voiced concern over the resumption of hostilities in a war that stopped but never ended.

North Korean gesture

In an unusual moment, a senior North Korean officer accompanied by a North Korean reporter approached a Western reporter on the northern side of the demilitarized zone. The officer asked in very good English about the response to the repatriation of the remains.

"I'm sure the United States is grateful, but I do not speak for the United States," the reporter replied.

"This is thanks to the generosity of our Supreme Commander and Dear Leader," he said, referring to Kim Jung Il, commander of the North Korean military, and his father, North Korean President Kim Il Sung. "We hope for a positive reaction from the U.S. military."

The officer, handsome, taller than most of the other Koreans, dressed in a long green overcoat, was asked his name. "Lieutenant Colonel Ri," he said. No first name. "They just call me Lieutenant Colonel Ri."

North Korean officers don't usually talk to the Western press.

U.S. Army Col. Forrest S. Chilton IV, who accepted the remains on behalf of the United Nations forces, said after the service, "What was done here today was a humanitarian gesture and a peaceful gesture."

The U.S. military believes that North Korea should have good information on the remains of at least 2,233 deceased soldiers who fought under the U.N. flag, including 389 Americans. Since the recent repatriation of remains began slowly in 1990, 160 have been returned. Colonel Ri said the North Korean army was trying to get information on others, but was not sure if it could. Other reports predict more repatriation by Christmas.

None of those returned so far have been positively identified, according to the joint United Nations and U.S. military operations. Dr. George Gould, who carefully inspected each of the current sets of remains yesterday, expressed optimism about the prospects of doing so in many of these. All of the contents are being sent to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

The U.S. and U.N. military released little specific information and asked reporters not to disclose identification numbers in the few cases in which they were announced by North Koreans because of the possibilities of error. At the time of the transfer, North Koreans said the bodies came from three prefectures, Kang Won, Pyongbuk, and Hamnam. The Reuters news agency, citing the North Korean Central News Agency, reported the names of three of the deceased as Earnest E. Little, Charles H. Long and William R. Adams.

Identification difficult

Some, perhaps many, of the soldiers may never be identified. The Korean War may have been one of the last for the unknown soldier. It began in an era when panoramic X-rays and DNA records, all mandatory today, did not exist.

Dental records, where they do exist, are largely paper.

The transfer here took place on a cold, clear winter day. North Korea's side of the demarcation line separating the two countries was immaculate, framed by austere watch towers on each side of a long strip of tarmac, and surrounded by low, sculptured trees. Stretching the width of the tarmac on the border side were a half-dozen one-story buildings that have been the scene of unending tense negotiations between the North and the South.

Snub from North

A top-level meeting hasn't occurred at these sites since 1991, when a South Korean general assumed the highest position for the first time, and the North Koreans refused to acknowledge the non-American.

The surrounding area is often referred to as the most heavily armed in the world. Approximately 1 million soldiers face off on opposite sides of a narrow demilitarized zone running the 151-mile width of Korea. Many nearby fields are covered with large mine fields, bunkers are sunk into the hills and artillery is believed to be nearby. Underneath the demilitarized zone, the South Koreanshave discovered four major tunnels, and military officials contend that there are probably another 20.

A haunting feeling accompanying yesterday's transfer of the remains is the sense that even decades after the soldiers died, the struggle over Korea continues.

"This is not a national barrier; it is just a demarcation line," said Colonel Ri, just before the coffins were transferred. "This is a very sad place. All [Korean] people want reunification of our people."

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