Nine South Korean soldiers then walked to their Chinese counterparts in precise steps before the nine decorated wooden boxes were carefully handed over, then placed on a table and draped with nine red Chinese flags by Beijing’s ambassador to Seoul, Xing Haiming.
Inside each box were the remains of a Chinese soldier who had died some 70 years ago, during the Korean War, when the armies of those two countries fought over the land where these soldiers now stood.
“The repatriation of the remains of volunteer patriotic martyrs by both sides is an important symbol of the new development of China-Korea relations, and is also significant for the development of mature and healthy bilateral relations,” said the Chinese Vice Minister of Veterans Affairs. Chang Zhengguo on Friday transfer.
South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Do-hoon said the repatriation was a “symbol of friendly cooperation”.
In the fall of 1950, Beijing sent a quarter of a million troops to the Korean Peninsula, supporting its ally North Korea and pushing back the combined forces of South Korea, the United States, and other countries under the United Nations Mandate.
These forces had almost reached the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea, when then leader Mao Zedong sent the Chinese People’s Volunteers to intervene.
The Chinese pushed this combined Allied army down the peninsula, eventually reaching the 38th parallel, the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea to this day.
More than 180,000 of those Chinese troops died in the Korean War, or what Beijing calls the War in support of US aggression and Korea. Eighty-eight of them started their way back to their hometown on Friday.
Since 2014, South Korea has been repatriating the remains of Chinese soldiers recovered from South Korea in accordance with “international law and the spirit of humanity,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
Before Friday, a total of 825 Chinese soldiers had been repatriated between 2014 and 2021.
On Friday the ambassador placed the Chinese flag on top of the ninth casket, all Chinese officials stood up and bowed three times to pay respect to their ancestors.
The Chinese guards saluted in return.
They then made their way neatly to the parked warplane where the other 79 sets of remains were waiting to finally be returned to their home.
Once all the boxes — some of which also contained personal artifacts such as watches, stamps, shoes and faded photographs — were aboard, the Y-20 closed the cargo hold, fired all four engines, and took off.
On Saturday, the Chinese remains will be buried at the Chinese People’s Volunteers Martyrs’ Cemetery in Shenyang, the capital of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, after another ceremony, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.
Escorting the traces of soldiers and the Y-20 will be one of the newest and proudest achievements of the Chinese military: the J-20 stealth fighter.
“This will be the first deployment of the powerful J-20 fighter jet since the PLA Air Force began such missions in 2015,” the Global Times said.
Previous repatriations were based on J-11s and the use of more modern aircraft shows the “increasing strength of the PLA,” the report said.
And it shows how far the Chinese army has come in 70 years.
CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this report.