SEOUL – Alongside the highway that runs from Seoul to the barbed wire fences of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) there is an all but forgotten cemetery. For one South Korean Buddhist monk, this is a truly sacred site.
Muk-gai chants — this is meant to ease the suffering of the spirits that inhabit this graveyard. With his shaved head and grey tunic, he taps on a 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, we 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 both sides of the peninsula. In 1996, the South Korean government chose this spot, about 20 kilometers south of the DMZ, to rebury the North Korean fighters. Thanks to the ongoing tensions between the South and North, these soldiers may never make it back home.
Visitors from beyond
Muk-gai says he didn't know much about this graveyard until three years ago when ghosts dressed in military uniforms and with gaping wounds began visiting him during his meditations. They telepathically communicated, he says, and they told him they missed their families and needed love. It took three months of repeated visits from the spirits until 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," he says. The monk thinks one of the ghosts might have been Chinese, one of the spirits of the 400 Chinese soldiers who died alongside the North Koreans and were buried next to them in the graveyard. Earlier this year, however, these bodies were exhumed and repatriated to China.
According to Muk-gai, this wasn't 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," he adds.
Not just North Koreans
As well as the North Koreans who died during the Korean War, there are a few dozen graves of soldiers who came to fight the South many years later, including commandos who once tried to assassinate the South Korean president. "This is still a key infiltration route from North Korea, which is just 35 miles in that direction," Muk-gai tells me, pointing into the distance.
Andrew Salmon, an author of two books on the Korean War, shows me the location in downtown Seoul where the deadly fight that killed these souls 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, but this could have been a deniable 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 the beginning his mission to soothe the North Korean souls, the monk has inspired others to join him. They come here once a month, leaving bottles of alcohol and food in front of the graves as offerings to the spirits.
Until a final peace
Muk-gai says it hasn’t 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 ask me, protesting and bothering us. But now they don’t do that anymore, they think what I am doing is positive," says the monk, as he bends down to clear some weeds that have grown around one of the headstones.
Even though the two Koreas are still technically at war, he says he will 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."
The monk 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.