After 70 years, China and South Korea exchanged the remains of the Korean War dead

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Incheon, South Korea

Chinese and South Korean soldiers stood face to face, the wind blowing through their ranks and their national flags raised in storms. A nearby Chinese military transport plane on the runway at Incheon International Airport has opened its back door to receive valuable cargo.

The nine South Korean soldiers then moved toward their Chinese counterparts in careful steps before carefully handing over nine ornate wooden boxes, which were then placed on a table and covered with nine red Chinese flags by Beijing’s ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming.

Inside each box were the remains of a Chinese soldier who died about 70 years ago, during the Korean War, when the two armies of these two countries fought over the land on which these soldiers now stand.

“The return of the remains of volunteer patriotic martyrs from both sides (is) an important symbol of the new development of Sino-Korean relations, moreover, it is important in the development of mature and healthy bilateral relations,” said the Chinese Vice Minister of Veterans Affairs. Chang Zhengguo during delivery on Friday.

South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Do-hoon said the repatriation is a “symbol of friendly cooperation.”

In the fall of 1950, Beijing sent a quarter of a million soldiers to the Korean peninsula, bolstered its North Korean ally and propelled the combined forces of South Korea, the United States, and other nations under the command of the United Nations.

Those forces had almost reached the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea, when then-leader Mao Zedong sent the Chinese People’s Volunteers to intervene.

The Chinese pushed the combined Allied army down the peninsula, eventually leading to a stalemate along the 38th parallel, the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea to this day.

More than 180,000 of these Chinese soldiers were killed in the Korean War, or what Beijing calls the war to resist American aggression and help Korea. Eighty-eight of them began the journey home on Friday.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said that, since 2014, South Korea has been returning the remains of Chinese soldiers recovered in South Korea, in accordance with “international law and the spirit of humanity.”

Before Friday, a total of 825 remains of Chinese soldiers had been returned between 2014 and 2021.

After the ambassador placed the Chinese flag over the ninth coffin on Friday, all Chinese officials stood and bowed three times to pay respects to their ancestors.

In return, the Chinese guards saluted.

A Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transport taxi took to the runway at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on Friday with the remains of 88 Chinese soldiers who fell in the Korean War.  (Gawon Bay/CNN)

Then they walked meticulously to the parked warplane, where the other 79 groups of remains were waiting to finally return to their home.

Once all the boxes—some of which also contained personal artifacts such as watches, stamps, shoes, and faded photos—were on board, the Y-20 closed its cargo compartment, turned on its four engines and took off.

The state-run Global Times reported that the Chinese remains will be buried on Saturday at the Chinese People’s Volunteer Martyrs Cemetery in Shenyang, the capital of northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, after another ceremony.

Accompanying Soldiers’ Remains The Y-20 will be one of the Chinese military’s newest and proudest achievements: the J-20 stealth fighter.

“This will be the first time that the powerful J-20 stealth fighter will be deployed since the People’s Liberation Army Air Force began such missions in 2015,” the Global Times said.

The report said previous repatriations had relied on J-11s and the use of more modern aircraft showed the “increasing strength of the People’s Liberation Army”.

It shows how far the Chinese army has come in 70 years.

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