In this Thursday, June 28, 2012 photo, local resident Kim Dong-hun inspects the wooden grave markers at the "enemy cemetery," where North Korean and Chinese soldiers who died in the Korean War are buried, just south of the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea. Hundreds of identical wooden grave markers poke out of the grass on a hill surrounded by rice paddies and trees, North Korea's dark mountains visible in the distance. Some are rotting; some have been knocked to the dirt; most have no names. (AP/Hye Soo Nah)
Just south of the Demilitarized Zone, hundreds of identical wooden grave markers poke out of the grass on a hill surrounded by rice paddies and trees, North Korea's dark mountains visible in the distance. Some are rotting; some have been knocked to the dirt; most have no names.
They call this the "enemy cemetery," though of the two nations whose soldiers are buried here, only North Korea is still considered an enemy by the South. The other, China, has inspired proposals for improving this site, but bitter feelings for the North have formed a seemingly impassable barrier.
China is now a major trading and diplomatic partner, and a significant source of tourists to South Korea. Many might come here to honor their war dead if a more fitting memorial were built, especially on a day like Friday, the anniversary of the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War.
At least a few Chinese have visited this cemetery near the border with North Korea, though there is not even a parking lot at the site. They often are saddened by what they see.
"My fellow countrymen were left in the wild by themselves. So lonely," Chinese businessman Huang Zhun said in Beijing. The son of a Korean War veteran who survived, he visited the cemetery last year to honor those who died.
South Korean government collected the scattered remains of about 770 North Koreans and 270 Chinese and buried them here in 1996, calling it a humanitarian measure. Most of the dead are unidentified.
South Korean records estimate that about 148,600 Chinese troops died during the three-year war, while Chinese data say 116,000 died, according to the state-run Institute for Military History Compilation in Seoul.
Qin Furong, a 63-year-old bank employee from Jinan in eastern China, learned of the graveyard in 2010. She had long dreamed of finding the remains of her father, who was killed in the war when she was 2.
She came here looking for answers, but found only wooden signs marked "anonymous."
"No names," she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press in China. So she burned paper "spirit money," bowed before a mass grave and made offerings of fruit and alcohol.
"Let it be for all the Chinese soldiers who are buried there," she said.
She later asked a friend to bring her soil from the cemetery as a memorial, and plans to take it to her father's hometown.
Qin said she's grateful South Korea has a place for former enemies but is disappointed that there's no way to know if her father is among them.
During a recent visit by AP reporters, cigarette butts, believed to be used by Chinese visitors as a substitute for incense, littered the burial mounds. Only a few people visit each day.
Some South Koreans want to do more. Kim Dong-hun, a local resident, is pushing for private development of the cemetery, hoping it could increase tourism and also be a site of pilgrimage for the Chinese.
Mukgai, a South Korean who goes by his Buddhist name and plans to become a monk soon, conducted a 108-day prayer session at the cemetery this year, and plans to build a small temple and hold a concert there.
"Offering the highest-level respect to the dead is a heroic act," he said.
Gyeonggi province, which has jurisdiction over the cemetery, discussed a renovation of the cemetery with Defense Ministry officials earlier this year, but province officials later decided to shelve the idea because of worries over a possible conservative backlash ahead of December's presidential election, according to province officials who attended the meeting. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment.
The Korean Peninsula technically remains at war since the armistice 59 years ago, and tensions have been particularly high in recent years.
There were two deadly incidents in 2010, both blamed on North Korea: the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors, and a North Korean artillery strike on a border island killed four South Koreans. North Korea says it didn't sink the ship. This year a North Korea rocket launch drew condemnation from the South and other countries, and Pyongyang has threatened several times to attack Seoul.
Further complicating the cemetery's fate are those buried here who did not die in the Korean War: nearly 30 North Korean commandos who unsuccessfully stormed South Korea's presidential palace in 1968, and a North Korean agent who killed himself after planting a bomb in 1987 that killed all 115 people aboard a South Korean passenger plane.
Neither Pyongyang nor Beijing has shown interest in taking back the remains of their nationals or trying to identify them.
In a written response Thursday to an AP request for comment, the Chinese Civil Affairs ministry said it "will closely monitor the conditions of overseas facilities for Chinese martyrs and will collaborate with related departments on relevant efforts." It made no direct reference to the South Korean cemetery.
North Korea doesn't comment on the cemetery, but Pyongyang regularly expresses its anger at the United States and South Korea, saying the allies are preparing for an invasion.
South Korea asked North Korea to take back its troops' remains in the 1980s, but North Korea accepted only the ashes of dozens of Chinese soldiers. South Korea later contacted North Korea again about repatriation, but Pyongyang has not responded, according to South Korean officials.
Lee Chang-hyung, an analyst at Seoul's government-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said South Korea should fix up the Chinese graves separately from the North Korean ones.
"We need to make a good use of the cemetery for the development of our military and diplomatic relations with China," he said.
China, which established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992, has been South Korea's biggest trading partner since 2004. Last year, about 2.2 million Chinese, many of them tourists, visited South Korea.
To some South Koreans, however, the idea of renovating a cemetery containing North Korean dead sparks fury.
"How can we sympathize with people who aimed their guns at us?" asked Won Bok-gi, an 82-year-old Korean War veteran. "I absolutely oppose such a move. ... We should destroy such a place."