By Andrew Salmon
In Paju County, north of Seoul, it is hidden behind a hedge on the road that runs parallel to the Imjin River, close to a gas station. Once through the hedge, the noise of traffic evaporates. A path winds down to gravestones set in green lawns. In the early evening sunlight, even these low stones cast shadows across the grass.
War graves are emotive places.
The beautifully maintained Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is iconic worldwide. The British memorial at Kohima in India, where Japanese troops were fought to a standstill in their last great offensive of World War II, offers a searing but unforgettable inscription: "When you go home/Tell them of us and say/For your tomorrow/We gave our today."
It recalls perhaps the most famous war epithet of all time ― Simonides' lines to the 300 Spartans killed holding Thermopylae Pass: "Pray tell the Spartans/Oh, stranger passing by/That here, obedient to their laws/We lie."
But the Paju graveyard is, perhaps, more poignant than most.
There is little signage, no heroic statuary. The graves ― many of anonymous soldiers ― are set in two tiers. This means all the dead face out over gentle fields toward the river, the low hills beyond and the DMZ.
And all are facing north ― for these are the graves of North Koreans.
Some were killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. Others were killed in post-war commando operations and submarine incursions. Others were simply bodies washed down the Imjin ― a strategic river that has been a blood meridian for centuries ― from the North.
War graves are places of reflection.
This one is particularly so, because it is both isolated and quiet. Visitors here have a silent space in which to think.
English poet AE Housman's words sprung to mind: "Here dead lie we/Because we did not choose/To live and shame the land/From which we sprung. Life, to be sure/Is nothing much to lose/But young men think it is/And we were young."
Compounding the tragedy is that these men are denied by their own government. Their families can never visit these graves, or lay flowers upon them.
So, I commend South Korea for granting these men, who died trying to overthrow this nation, such soft beds to lie in: A civilized nation honors all those who rest in its soil, friend or foe.
I also commend ― for once ― North Korea in the ongoing international diplomatic process with the United States.
Virtually all commentators and Western media characterize this as a "North Korean denuclearization process." This is myopic. The June 12 Singapore Summit Declaration makes clear that there are four key points, not just one.
The first calls for the establishment of "new relations" between North Korea and the U.S., aiming at "peace and prosperity." The second calls for the building of a "lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula." The third calls for "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula. The last calls for recovery of war remains.
Since June, there has been minimal progress on the first three points. While the commentariat bludgeons Pyongyang for its lack of movement on point three, points one and two are overlooked.
Don't get me wrong. I am not taking sides. The US is a democracy. North Korea is a dictatorship.
Still, I fail to understand why Washington does not grant Pyongyang what it has requested for so long: a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
There seems minimal risk in negotiating and signing a piece of paper. If this can generate forward momentum on the other points ― why not try it?
And the fourth point has been honored by North Korea. Remains have been sent back to the United States for closure.
Still, it would be better for all if more attention were paid to the first three points of the summit declaration, rather than just the third.
Don't take my word for it. There are graveyards a-plenty scattered across this land, where young men in the uniforms of many, many nations lie. If they had a voice, the call for peace, I think, would be thunderous.
Andrew Salmon (email@example.com) is a Seoul-based reporter and author.