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South Korean Monk Cares for Cemetery of Enemy Soldiers

Muk-gai, 56, a South Korean Buddhist monk, at a graveyard for North Koreans and Chinese. (Malte Kollenberg/VOA)
South Korean Monk Cares for Spirits of Dead North Korean Soldiers
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When the Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire agreement, the remains of thousands of soldiers were left in both North and South Korea.

In 1996, the South Korean government chose land close to the neutral area between North and South Korea to re-bury the bodies of some enemy fighters. The burial place is in Paju, north of the South Korean capital, Seoul.

A man there says it is his spiritual duty to care for the souls of the dead.

The burial grounds are next to a road that stretches from Seoul to the fences of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. Few Koreans know the cemetery is there. But 56-year-old Muk-gai does. He is a Buddhist monk, a religious worker. He says the cemetery is a holy place.

You are listening to Muk-gai beating on a drum and chanting. He says the sounds will ease the suffering of the spirits that he says visit the cemetery. He beats his small drum as he walks past the headstones. The remains of 769 North Korean soldiers are buried on the grounds. The soldiers came to fight South Korea. But Muk-gai does not think of them as enemies.

The monk says once they are dead, we should forgive everything they did in life. He says that is an Eastern tradition.

Muk-gai says he did not know much about this cemetery until three years ago. He says that is when ghosts in military clothing and with large open wounds began visiting him. He says they told him they missed their families and needed love. He says the spirits visited him repeatedly for three months until he began caring for them in the cemetery.

He says at first he was frightened by the spirits, but that fear went away. He says the soldiers have not grown older since they died. He says they still look young. He feels like they are his sons.

The bodies of about 400 Chinese soldiers were buried here until earlier this year when they were returned to China. But tensions between North and South Korea mean the 769 bodies in this cemetery will probably not be sent back home anytime soon.

Some North Koreans who fled to the South say they are sad about that. Park Gun-ha is a North Korean defector. Like most other men in the North, he served in his country’s military. He says the soldiers in the graveyard should be returned home.

Mr. Park says it is a political issue. He says the soldiers did not choose to go to war -- they were sent by their leaders.

In addition to holding the North Korean soldiers who died during the Korean War, the cemetery also has the remains of men who came to fight the South many years later. They include the “commandos” who attempted to take the life of South Korea’s president in 1968.

Andre Salmon is a Korean War historian. He says North Korea may not want those bodies returned.

“I can’t speak for the North Korean government -- this is purely speculation on my behalf -- that this was a deniable operation, a black operation, so if they accepted the bodies back, they're accepting that they conducted the operation.”

Muk-gai says he will continue caring for the cemetery until there is finally peace. Some South Koreans have criticized the monk for his actions. But he says he believes he is doing the right thing.

He says people used to ask him why he was caring for the enemy, and tried to stop him. But he believes he has changed their minds.

As he leaves the cemetery, he taps his drum and bows toward the graves.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

This story was reported by correspondent Jason Strother in Paju, South Korea. Christopher Cruise wrote this story for VOA Learning English and read and produced the report. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

cease-fire – adj. an agreement to stop fighting a war for a period of time so that a permanent agreement can be made to end the war

remains – n. the dead body of a person or animal

fence – n. a structure like a wall built outdoors usually of wood or metal that separates two areas or prevents people or animals from entering or leaving

cemetery – n. a place where dead people are buried

suffering – n. pain that is caused by injury, illness or loss; physical, mental, or emotional pain

headstone – n. a stone that marks the place where a dead person is buried and that usually has the person's name and birth and death dates on it

tradition – n. a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society for a long time

Now, it’s your turn to use these Words in This Story. In the comments section, write a sentence using one of these words and we will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.

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