South Korean Monk Cares for Spirits of North Korea's Dead

But for many South Koreans, North Koreans are still the enemy, whether they

ENGLISH | CERITA

Senin, 29 Sep 2014 11:47 WIB

Author

Jason Strother

South Korean Monk Cares for Spirits of North Korea's Dead

North Korea, South Korea, cemetery, war, Jason Strother

Alongside the highway that runs from Seoul to the barbed wire fences of the demilitarized zone there is an all but forgotten cemetery.  And for one South Korean Buddhist monk, it’s a truly sacred site.  
 
His name is Muk-gai and his chanting is meant to ease the suffering of the spirits that inhabit this graveyard. His head is shaved and he wears a grey tunic, he taps on his small drum as he walks past the headstones that dot this hillside.
 
These graves belong to 769 North Korean soldiers.
 
The 58-year old monk says he doesn’t consider them as enemies.
 
“It isn’t about sympathy, they were soldiers and soldiers obey their orders. In Buddhism, they say when people die they do not vanish, their bodies go away, but their souls still exist and are later reborn in many different forms”
 
When the Korean War ended in 1953, thousands of soldiers were left in mass graves, scattered around on both sides of the peninsula.
 
In 1996, the South Korean government chose this spot about 20 kilometers south of the DMZ to re-burry the North Korean fighters.
 
And because of the ongoing tensions between the South and North, these soldiers might never make it back home.
 
The monk Muk-gai says he didn’t know much about this graveyard until three years ago, when ghosts dressed in military uniforms and with gapping wounds began visiting him during his meditation.

They telepathically communicated, he says they told him  they missed their families and needed love.

And after three months of repeated visits from these spirits, he began caring for them at the cemetery. 

“At first, it was scary seeing these ghosts, but I got used to it. When you die, you don’t age.  So all these guys, I feel like they are my sons”
 
Muk-gai says one of the ghosts might have been Chinese.

He thinks it was one of the spirits of the 400 Chinese soldiers that died alongside and then were buried next to the North Koreans in the graveyard.

Earlier this year, those bodies were exhumed and repatriated to China.

But Muk-gai doesn’t think it was a good idea.

“They never wanted to go back to their homeland, because their parents have all passed away and they have no family there. It was a political decision to send those bodies back to their country and it’s not helpful for their souls.”
 
In addition to the North Koreans that died during the Korean War, are a few dozen graves of soldiers who came to fight the South many years later.
 
Those include commandos who once tried to assassinate the South Korean president.

“This remains a key infiltration route from North Korea, which is just 35 miles in that direction”
 
Andrew Salmon, author of two books on the Korean War, points out the location in downtown Seoul where that deadly firefight took place in 1968.
 
 He isn’t so sure that North Korea actually wants the bodies of those soldiers back.
 
“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 accept the bodies back then they accept that they conducted the operation”
 
Whatever their operation was, Muk-gai doesn’t care. And since beginning his mission to soothe the North Korean souls, the monk has inspired others to join him.

They come here once a month - they leave bottles of alcohol and food in front of the graves as offerings to the spirits.  
 
Muk-gai says it hasn’t always been easy to convince other South Koreans that he’s doing the right thing.
 
“Why are you doing this for soldiers from an enemy country, people used to say to me and they protested and they bothered us.  But now they don’t do that anymore, they think what I am doing is positive.”
 
Muk-gai leans down to clear some of the weeds that have grown around one of the headstones.

Even though the two Korea’s are still technically at war, he says he’ll care for the North Korean graves until there’s finally peace. 

“Once they are dead we should forgive everything they did in life, it’s an old tradition of the East.”   

Muk-gai takes a deep bow in front of one of the headstones, saying goodbye to the invisible spirits, as he taps out one last rhythm on his drum.

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