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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update at 1800 KST: This article has been updated to include more details on the ongoing demilitarization of the Joint Security Area (JSA).
Mine clearance in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) by Seoul and Pyongyang yesterday unearthed what is likely Korean War remains, the ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) said on Thursday.
In a written statement, the MND said two set of remains were recovered near the inter-Korean border at Hill 281, also known as Arrowhead Ridge.
“The remains were found for the first time in Arrowhead Ridge in Cheorwon County on October 24 while clearing landmines to proceed with the inter-Korean joint recovery operations in accordance with the ‘South-North military agreement of September 19,’” the ministry said.
The ROK military has so far removed 14 landmines, 187 explosives, and 1252 pieces of equipment, including M1 rifles and bayonets, from the area.
The mine clearance comes ahead of a planned pilot Inter-Korean Joint Operation to Recover Remains project, scheduled to take place between April 1 and October 31 next year near Arrowhead Ridge.
The defense ministry on Thursday said the remains discovery was a first for the area.
The ROK Ministry of National Defense Agency for Killed in Action Recovery and Identification (MAKRI) on Wednesday found keepsakes including an identification tag and remains including thigh bones, ribs, and a skull button, along with an M1 bayonet and bullet.
The identification tag reads “Republic of Korea Army 8810594 PAK JE KWON,” the ministry added.
“The MARKI presumes that the remains are from a member of [South Korea’s] armed forces who was killed in the war, but it will precisely verify identification through DNA analysis of remains,” the MND said in a written statement.
Based on its records, the South Korean military has so far confirmed that Pak, who was born in October 1931, died in July 1953 at the age of 21 in Cheorwon County one year after joining the army.
The defense ministry said the ROK and U.S. armed forces had engaged in a fierce battle with the enemy at Arrowhead Ridge twice between June 29 and 30 as well as between July 6 and 11, and that Pak was killed a day before combat finished.
Pak is believed to have two surviving sisters, and the MARKI plans to take DNA samples from them to confirm if the remains match.
The ROK military was set to hold an informal ceremony for them before placing the remains into a temporary storage facility on Thursday.
“Army Sergeant Pak Je-kwon returns to us, 65 years after he was killed in action. Now we can put one cup of Soju on his bedside,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in tweeted in response to the announcement.
“There must be no more war dead in this territory, and the recovery of remains 65 years after [death] should not be repeated.”
In its written statement, the defense ministry said it estimates that remains of around 10,000 ROK armed forces are interred within the DMZ, emphasizing today’s discovery showed the “necessity and urgency” of plans for the inter-Korean joint excavation of remains.
Remains of approximate 200 South Korean soldiers and 100 sets of U.S. and French war dead are presumed to be buried in the Arrowhead Ridge area, the MND added.
The announcement came the same day that South Korean Vice Minister of National Defense Suh Choo-suk held an impromptu ten-minute meeting with DPRK Army Colonel General and vice-minister of the People’s Armed Forces Kim Hyong Ryong.
The ROK defense ministry said the meeting took place at 1120 local time on the sidelines of the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, set to be held between Wednesday and Friday in China.
“Vice minister Suh and Kim assessed the improvement of inter-Korean relations and the fulfillment of summit declarations, and confirmed each side’s shared stance on the swift implementation of the military agreement,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Both agreed to have a meeting in the future whenever the occasion permits it.”
The MND earlier in the day said there had been no plan to hold the one-on-one meeting, though it was prepared for the possibility of a chance encounter.
The two Koreas and the United Nations Command (UNC) on Monday agreed to remove firearms and guard posts from the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom by Thursday following the conclusion of a 20-day mine sweeping operation in the area.
Defense ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo today told a a regular press briefing withdrawal was proceeding “as scheduled and without any setback.”
The defense ministry later announced that the North and South Korean militaries and the United Nations Command (UNC) had completed the withdrawal of firearms and guard posts in the JSA as of 1300 local time.
The two Koreas have also deployed up to 35 unarmed personnel to the site, with the number of guard duties being adjusted as part of efforts to demilitarize the JSA.
Seoul and Pyongyang are set to hold general-level military talks at Panmunjom on Friday, at which they are expected to make an interim evaluation on the implementation of the military agreement and discuss a timeline for next steps.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Republic of Korea Armed Forces