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Originally published Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 6:17 AM

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Some rue neglect at SKorea's 'enemy cemetery'

Just south of the Demilitarized Zone, hundreds of identical wooden grave markers poke from a grassy hill surrounded by rice paddies and trees. Some markers are rotting; others have been knocked to the dirt; most have no names.

Associated Press

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PAJU, South Korea —

Just south of the Demilitarized Zone, hundreds of identical wooden grave markers poke from a grassy hill surrounded by rice paddies and trees. Some markers are rotting; others have been knocked to the dirt; most have no names.

Here, within sight of the North's dark mountains, is South Korea's badly neglected "enemy cemetery," final resting place for Chinese and North Koreans, most of them killed in the Korean War that ended with an armistice agreement 59 years ago Friday.

The two Koreas remain bitter enemies. China, however, has become one of Seoul's most important economic partners and a significant source of tourists. But those interested in visiting the graves of their countrymen who fought in the 1950-53 conflict may have a hard time even finding it. There is no parking lot, no signs on the main road; those who do make it are often saddened by what they see.

"My fellow countrymen were left in the wild by themselves. So lonely," said Huang Zhun, son of a Chinese Korean War veteran who survived. Huang, a businessman in east China's Hangzhou city, visited the cemetery last year to honor the dead.

Last year, more than 2 million tourists visited South Korea from China, which established diplomatic ties with Seoul in 1992 and has been its biggest trading partner since 2004. South Korean records estimate nearly 150,000 Chinese troops died in the Korean War, while China says 116,000.

Inspired by visiting Chinese, local officials have reviewed plans to renovate the cemetery. But the bitter feelings most South Koreans have toward their northern neighbors remains a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

"How can we sympathize with people who aimed their guns at us?" said Won Bok-gi, an 82-year-old Korean War veteran. "I absolutely oppose such a move. ... We should destroy such a place."

The South Korean government has collected the scattered remains of about 770 North Koreans and 270 Chinese and buried them here since 1996, calling it a humanitarian measure. Most of the dead are unidentified.

Qin Furong, a 63-year-old bank employee from Jinan, in eastern China, had long dreamed of finding the remains of her father, who was killed in the war when she was 2. She visited the enemy cemetery after learning about it in 2010, but found most of the graves marked only by wooden signs that read "anonymous."

"No names," she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press in China. So she burned paper "spirit money," bowed before a mass grave and made offerings of fruit and alcohol.

"Let it be for all the Chinese soldiers who are buried there," said Qin, who later asked a friend to bring her soil from the cemetery, which she plans to take to her father's hometown as a memorial to him. She's grateful South Korea has a place for its former enemies, but she's disappointed there's no way to know if her father is among them.

Only a few people visit the cemetery each day. During a recent visit by Associated Press journalists, the burial mounds were littered with cigarette butts, possibly used in lieu of incense offerings by Chinese visitors.

Some South Koreans want to do more. Local resident Kim Dong-hun is pushing for private development of the cemetery, hoping it could increase tourism and also be a site of pilgrimage for the Chinese.

Mukgai, a South Korean who goes by his Buddhist name and plans to soon become a monk, conducted a 108-day prayer session at the cemetery this year, and plans to build a small temple there and hold a concert.

"Offering the highest-level respect to the dead is a heroic act," he said.

Gyeonggi province, which has jurisdiction over the cemetery, discussed a renovation plan with Defense Ministry officials earlier this year, but provincial officials later shelved the idea because of worries over a possible conservative backlash ahead of December's presidential election. Provincial officials who attended the meeting spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss it with the media.

The Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Tensions between the Koreas remain high since the sinking of a South Korean warship and a North Korean artillery strike on a border island in 2010. Pyongyang has threatened several times in recent months to attack Seoul, and its April rocket launch, said by North Korea to be a peaceful attempt to send a satellite into space, was widely seen as a test of its long-range missile capabilities.

Further complicating the cemetery's fate is that not all who are buried here died in the Korean War. Also among the forlorn graves are the bodies of nearly 30 North Korean commandos who unsuccessfully stormed South Korea's presidential palace in 1968, as well as a North Korean agent who killed himself after planting a bomb that killed 115 people aboard a South Korean jetliner in 1987.

Neither Pyongyang nor Beijing has shown interest in taking back the remains of their nationals or trying to identify them.

In a written response Thursday to an AP request for comment, the Chinese Civil Affairs ministry said it "will closely monitor the conditions of overseas facilities for Chinese martyrs and will collaborate with related departments on relevant efforts." It made no direct reference to the South Korean cemetery.

Pyongyang hasn't commented on the cemetery, and when Seoul asked it to retrieve its troops' remains in the 1980s, North Korea accepted only the ashes of dozens of Chinese soldiers.

Lee Chang-hyung, an analyst at Seoul's government-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the South should fix up the Chinese graves and leave the North Korean markers until ties between the Koreas improve.

"We need to make a good use of the cemetery," he said, "for the development of our military and diplomatic relations with China."

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Tang reported from Beijing.

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