Monk tends graves of 'exiled' troops
Updated: 2013-07-27 13:35
Just south of the minefields, fences and watchposts of the world's last Cold War frontier, a monk pours rice wine on the grave of an unknown soldier from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea who was killed 60 years ago.
The monk, 57-year-old Mukgai, is alone in tending to the spirits of "enemy" combatants - DPRK and Chinese troops - who died in the slaughter of the 1950-53 Korean War and whose remains lie buried in an isolated ROK cemetery.
To honor soldiers from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea who died during the Korean War (1950-53), Mukgai, a monk from the Republic of Korea, bangs a wooden gong at a cemetery in Paju, ROK. Jung Yeon-Je / Agence France-Presse
Every day, he performs the same Buddhist ritual, chanting sutras, banging a drum and pouring the wine in an effort, he says, to soothe the souls of young men permanently exiled in death.
Some 735 DPRK soldiers and 369 Chinese are buried in the cemetery - the only one of its kind in the ROK - located a short walk from the Imjin River that forms part of the border separating the two neighbors.
Mukgai decided to devote himself to tending the graveyard after what he describes as a vivid and disturbing supernatural encounter one night in October 2011 in the grounds of the nearby temple where he lived at the time.
"All of a sudden the temple grounds were packed with the ghosts of all these dead soldiers, making a huge commotion, some of them speaking in Chinese," he said.
They were wearing worn-out or bloodied military uniforms, some of them complaining they were cold and hungry, begging for help and crying that they missed their homes, he said.
"It was an unbelievable and unforgettable scene," he said.
Both moved and frightened by the experience, Mukgai said he initially tried to ignore the pleas but was worn down by what became nightly visitations in the temple grounds.
When the temple closed, after the land it was on was sold, the monk moved to an adjacent log house and eventually embarked on his mission to bring some comfort to the soldiers' spirits.
Casualty figures from the Korean War remain disputed, but around 200,000 DPRK troops are believed to have been killed. China entered the war in October 1950 and lost about 135,000 soldiers in the fighting.
Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict but left both sides still technically at war because it was never formalized by a peace treaty.
Beijing and Seoul established diplomatic relations in 1992 and China is now ROK's largest trade partner.
Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul on the other hand remain extremely volatile, as witnessed most recently by a surge in military tensions in March and April.
The cemetery was established in 1996 as a final resting place for the remains of DPRK and Chinese soldiers that had been buried in small plots scattered around the country.
Initially the graves were marked with a simple wooden stake. While some carried a name, most were anonymous and identified only by nationality.
The site was poorly tended and soon fell into disrepair. "When I first saw it, it was completely run down, teeming with rats, overgrown ..." Mukgai said.
In line with Buddhist tradition, Mukgai staged a 108-day period of prayer at the cemetery aimed at releasing the souls of the dead soldiers from their torment.