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SEOUL — Kim Byeong-rye has lived his whole life in Taesungdong, a farming village inside the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

The 69-year-old rice farmer says he saw a U.S. plane crash on Ma-san, a small mountain near his home, in the fall of 1952. Kim was amazed to see a group of Americans in his village asking about the possible remains of a U.S. pilot from another wartime plane crash in the DMZ.

"It is very surprising to see their efforts to seek the remains of their servicemembers, even after several decades have passed," said Kim, through a translator. "I wonder if our nation really would do the same thing. I feel very impressed and touched by their hard efforts."

Kim’s nation does do the same. Eight years ago, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense began looking for their killed in action from "Yuk-I-O," the country’s name for its civil war.

The South Korean military estimates there are at least 130,000 soldiers’ remains to be excavated, with as many as 30 percent in North Korean territory, according to Lt. Col. Ju Gyeong-bae, a spokesman for the ministry’s agency for KIA recovery and identification.

So far, the agency has collected 2,233 sets of remains. Of those, 44 soldiers have been identified and buried in national cemeteries.

In mid-December, the ministry held a return ceremony, honoring the remains of 270 South Korean soldiers killed during the war. It will likely take another six months or a year before any of those remains could be identified, Ju said.

The search for South Korean soldiers mirrors the efforts by the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based out of Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, Ju said.

The South Koreans have 179 uniformed and civilian workers in their agency, which goes by the acronym MACRI. Like the U.S. command, the South Koreans rely on tips from local residents and split their work into investigation and excavation teams, Ju said.

Ju said next year, MACRI plans to step up its efforts to identify the remains. Part of the project includes testing the blood and DNA of survivors of the war, with the hopes of matching the information to the remains, he said.

Since the efforts began, South Korea has found the remains of 614 North Korean and Chinese soldiers, according to Ju. Both countries have refused the remains. They are buried, for now, at a graveyard inside the DMZ called the "enemy cemetery."


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