South Korea has unearthed nine sets of remains of war dead, including a rare, relatively intact skeleton, during a mine-clearance operation inside the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula, the military said Monday.
The return of remains from the 1950-53 Korean War, including 55 cases containing the remains of American troops who were lost in North Korea, has been a bright spot in otherwise slow diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
The defense ministry announced it had recovered five sets of remains, including one that “appears to be complete,” last week during work in the Cheorwon area northeast of Seoul. It released a photo of the skeleton, which still had a shoe on one foot.
“All the five sets have been determined during the on-site investigation to be the remains of war dead,” the ministry said in a press release. They will be sent to the ministry’s agency for the recovery and identification of troops killed in action, known as MAKRI, for DNA analysis and further identification.
The total number of remains found since the operation began Oct. 1 at Arrowhead Hill is now nine. The site saw fierce fighting during the war, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Major fighting at Arrowhead, also known as Hill 281, involved American, French, South Korean and Chinese forces, according to retired Lt. Col. Steve Tharp, a military history expert who is researching the battles. The North Koreans were farther east and would not have been involved, he said.
The joint effort to remove land mines and excavate remains from the DMZ, a 2.5-mile wide, 155-mile long no man’s land, is part of an inter-Korean military pact that was reached during a summit between the two countries in September.
Some 7,675 Americans remain unaccounted for since the war, with an estimated 5,300 believed to be on the North Korean side. More than 133,000 South Koreas are still missing from the conflict, according to the defense ministry.
North Korea also returned 55 cases said to contain the remains of American servicemembers in July as part of an agreement between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump during their June 12 summit in Singapore. It was the first such repatriation in more than a decade.
The Americans initially captured Arrowhead in 1951 and suffered major losses in attacks in August 1952 when the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, was in control, according to Tharp.
A French battalion took over in October 1952 and fought with South Korean soldiers on nearby White Horse Hill as the area came under heavy attack by the Chinese, who also released a dam upstream to flood the river and block the U.N. from sending reinforcements, he said.
“The French hung on, but they did lose some people there,” Tharp said.
The next major battle in the area occurred toward the end of the war when the Chinese attacked South Korean soldiers as part of a surge in fighting to gain ground before the armistice was signed on July 27.
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