PAJU, South Korea (Reuters) - There is no resting in peace at South Korea’s “Enemy Cemetery”.
On a quiet hill, just south of the heavily armed border that divides the Korean peninsula, wooden grave markers with fading white paint are aligned in neat rows above bodies no one wants to claim at plots few dare visit.
In black ink splattered with mud, the Korean word for “Anonymous” marks almost all of the burial mounds for nearly 550 North Korean and Chinese soldiers and spies.
“The graves are pointed to the North. They are facing home,” said South Korean First Lieutenant Choi Won-joon, who served as a military guide to the graveyard.
The cemetery, which opened in 1996, is a reminder of the lingering hostilities between the Cold War foes.
Last month, the Defence Ministry said the cemetery was nearing capacity as hundreds of bodies of North Korean soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean war have been dug up in recent years and buried in the graveyard. North Korea refuses to take back the bodies.
“As far as the North Koreas are concerned, the entire peninsula is rightfully theirs. They are still in Korean soil as far as they are concerned and they are looking at unification as just a matter of time,” said Brian Meyers, a specialist in North Korea’s state ideology at Dongseo University in Busan.
The cemetery also contains the remains of North Korean commandoes sent on missions to kill. If the North claimed these bodies, it would also have to accept responsibility and apologize for the missions that Pyongyang has so far disavowed.
At the cemetery, a warning sign tells people to keep away and a small plaque tucked under a tree says: “The cemetery for North Korean soldiers and Chinese soldiers”.
“In the military, this place is officially known as the ‘Enemy Cemetery’,” Lt Choi said.
In one grave lies Kim Sung-il who planted a bomb on a Korean Air flight in 1987 that killed more than 100 people on board. Other graves hold the remains of North Koreans killed trying to infiltrate the South in a mini-submarine in 1998.
At the front of the cemetery, in graves marked with the word “spy” followed by their actual names, lie 30 North Korean agents killed in a failed mission to assassinate then South Korean President Park Chung-hee in 1968, a military official said.
“The North Koreans agents in those graves are the victims of North Korean propaganda. So they, as victims, deserve better treatment,” said Kim Shin-jo, a former North Korean commando who was the only member on the Park assassination team captured alive.
Kim was later pardoned by the South Korean government and became a pastor in the South, as well as a fierce opponent of the North Korean government.
The graves of North Koreans sit on one hillside and Chinese on another, flanked by green fields of rice and soybeans. The burial mounds are covered with weeds and grass.
The graveyard plots began filling up quickly after 2000 when South Korea, facing criticism from veterans’ groups for not doing enough to find the remains of those killed in the Korean War, began a intensive search for the bodies of its fallen soldiers.
As of early September, it had unearthed 2,677 bodies, including those of 599 enemy soldiers, military officials said.
The parties fighting in the Korean War — North and South Korea, China, and U.S.-led United Nations forces — reached an agreement in 1992 for the repatriation of soldiers’ remains.
But the repatriation is mostly one-sided as North Korea has shown no interest in receiving the bodies of its fallen troops.
Most of the bodies that have been handed over were remains of U.S. troops found in the North and dug up with the help of American experts.
“The North Korean propaganda apparatus has been extracting a lot of comic relief over the American Army’s search for the remains of its soldiers in North Korea. They gloat over the fact that the Americans left so many dead bodies,” Myers said.
In the first few years after the enemy cemetery opened, visitors placed flowers on the graves. This prompted South Korea to keep an eye on the cemetery in the hope of finding North Korean sympathizers visiting fallen comrades.
Once people knew they were being watched, they stopped coming. South Korea says it no longer monitors the site.
Ties have chilled in recent months with North Korea refusing to talk to the South because it is angry at its President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in February with a hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.
Lee has called on the North to hand over about 1,000 South Koreans who were abducted by North Korean agents or were prisoners from the Korean War who were never allowed to return home.
The North has denied holding people against their will, which has infuriated many in the South who see the communist state as playing politics with humanitarian issues.
For many in the South, the enemy cemetery serves as a reminder of the differences between the two states.
“Under international convention, we are required to treat the bodies of our enemies with respect. That is why we have this place,” Choi said.
“They were our enemies. We have respected their remains.”
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Editing by Megan Goldin