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This South Korean Monk Comforts North Korean Souls

Muk-gai in the graveyard
Muk-gai in the graveyard
Jason Strother

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.


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Future

How Facebook's Metaverse Could Undermine Europe's Tech Industry

Mark Zuckerberg boasted that his U.S. tech giant will begin a hiring spree in Europe to build his massive "Metaverse." Touted as an opportunity for Europe, the plans could poach precious tech talent from European tech companies.

Carl-Johan Karlsson

PARIS — Facebook's decision to recruit 10,000 people across the European Union might be branded as a vote of confidence in the strength of Europe's tech industry. But some European companies, which are already struggling to fill highly-skilled roles such as software developers and data scientists, are worried that the tech giant might make it even harder to find the workers that power their businesses.


Facebook's new European staff will work as part of its so-called "metaverse," the company's ambitious plan to venture beyond its current core business of connected social apps.

Shortage of French developers

Since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his more maximalist vision of Facebook in July, the concept of the metaverse has quickly become a buzzword in technology and business circles. Essentially a sci-fi inspired augmented reality world, the metaverse will allow people to interact through hardware like augmented reality (AR) glasses that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones.

The ambition to build what promoters claim will be the successor to the mobile internet comes with a significant investment, including multiplying the 10% of the company's 60,000-strong workforce currently based in Europe. The move has been welcomed by some as a potential booster for the continent's tech market.

Eight out of 10 French software companies say they can't find enough workers.

"In a number of regions in Europe there are clusters of pioneering technology companies. A stronger representation of Facebook can support this trend," German business daily Handelsblatt notes.

And yet the enthusiasm isn't shared by everyone. In France, company leaders worry that Facebook's five-year recruiting plan will dilute an already limited talent pool, with eight out of 10 French software companies already having difficulties finding staff, daily Les Echos reports.

The profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg displayed on a smartphone

Cris Faga / ZUMA

Teleworking changes the math

There is currently a shortage of nearly 10,000 computer engineers in France, with developers being the most sought-after, according to a recent study by Numéum, the main employers' consortium of the country's digital sector.

Facebook has said its recruiters will target nations including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands and Ireland, without mentioning specific numbers in any country. But the French software sector, which has so far managed to retain 59% of its workforce, fears that its highly skilled and relatively affordable young talent will be fertile recruiting grounds — especially since the pandemic has ushered in a new era of teleworking.

Facebook's plan to build its metaverse comes at a time when the nearly $1-trillion company faces its biggest scandal in years over damning internal documents leaked by a whistleblower, as well as mounting antitrust scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators. Still, as the sincerity of Zuckerberg's quest is underscored by news that the pivot might also come with a new company name, European software companies might want to start thinking about how to keep their talent in this universe.

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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