BEIJING: The remains of more than 400 Chinese soldiers killed fighting in the Korean War over six decades ago returned to their homeland on Friday for a final burial, state media reported.
A Chinese plane transporting the coffins of the 437 soldiers touched down in the northeastern city of Shenyang, the official Xinhua news agency said in a short dispatch.
Earlier, the small coffins, draped in the Chinese flag, were carried by Chinese soldiers onto the aircraft at South Korea’s Incheon airport for the flight to Shenyang, where China has a state cemetery for its war dead.
The return symbolizes the turnaround in ties between Beijing and Seoul, once ideological enemies that only established diplomatic relations in 1992 as Cold War enmities gave way to booming trade and cooperation.
China fought alongside the North in the 1950-1953 conflict, its dramatic and crucial intervention coming after US-led forces pushed the Communist army almost as far as the Chinese border.
The Chinese intervention enabled Communist forces to drive Western troops back south, and ultimately the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel.
Casualty figures remain disputed but Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400,000 Chinese deaths, while Chinese sources mention a toll of about 180,000.
“This is a new milestone in bilateral relations and is expected to serve as a good example of promoting peace in Northeast Asia,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had offered to return the bodies as a goodwill gesture during a visit to Beijing in June last year.
The transfer comes in time for the annual Chinese Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping, festival when many people visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. This year it falls on April 5.
The soldiers’ bodies were initially buried in different locations scattered around South Korea.
In 1996, Seoul designated a special cemetery plot in Paju, just south of the heavily fortified border with the North, where all the remains of Chinese and North Korean soldiers still on South Korean soil could be buried together.
Work on exhuming the Chinese bodies at Paju for repatriation began in December.
While some graves are named, most are identified only by nationality.