No lasting rest for lost victim of Korean war

Richard Lloyd Parry on the row delaying the burial of a British soldier
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Seoul - It should have been a historic and emotional occasion. On St George's Day next week, British veterans from the Korean War were to have gathered at the Commonwealth war cemetery in Pusan to lay to rest one of their fallen comrades.

For nearly half a century he had lain unknown and unburied in foreign soil. Then a remarkable and unexpected thing happened. In 1995, 42 years after the war ended, he became the first British serviceman to be handed over by the Stalinist government of North Korea, perhaps the most reclusive regime in the world.

British officials spent months in tricky negotiations with the North Korean People's Army across the demilitarised zone which still divides the peninsula. But yesterday, with the invitations about to be sent out from the British embassy in Seoul, the funeral was cancelled, not because of North Korean obstruction, but because the American Department of Defense is refusing to hand over his remains.

Officials in London insist there are no hard feelings. But British diplomats in Seoul privately are annoyed about the last-minute collapse of what should have been a proud, symbolic and resonant moment.

This morning, 100 veterans and their families will arrive in Seoul, accompanied by the Duke of Gloucester, for a week of commemorations for the 1,100 British servicemen who died during the three-year Korean conflict. On Sunday, the dead man's widow and his son, born after his death, were to have flown out to join the party. But next Wednesday, as the veterans travel from Seoul to Pusan, the British remains will stay locked in storage in a Pentagon laboratory in Hawaii. Despite the presence of identifying "dog tags", US scientists insist they do not know who the dead man is and will not release the body.

At the heart of the disagreement are deep differences between the way Britain and the United States regard their war dead. America repatriates all the bodies it can locate and makes strenuous efforts to identify them. Until the Falklands War in 1982, British policy was to let the dead "lie where they fall".

After the Korean War ended, unknown numbers of dead servicemen were left in North Korean territory.In 1990 the North began returning American remains, which were duly sent to the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHAI). When North Korea handed over the first British body in October 1995, it was also sent to CILHAI, with accompanying dog tags.

Recently the answer came back: the body could not be identified with confidence and would not be released for next week's funeral.

"It's been British practice to take dog tags as empirical evidence," says a British officer involved with the case. "At Ypres, when they were pulling corpses out of the mud, that was often the best you could do."

For the scientists in CILHAI this is not enough. They need absolute proof of identity, which means DNA samples. "They were literally asking us for locks of hair, even envelopes that he might have licked, which might still carry his DNA," says a British diplomat.

But the scientists failed to make a match, just as they have failed to make a match in almost every case they have dealt with. Of the 210 sets of US remains sent to the lab from North Korea since 1990, only six have been positively identified.

The Americans say dog tags prove nothing. "The tags tell you that in all probability the person who once carried them is dead," says Jim Coles III, spokesman for US Forces Korea.

"But just because you have a set of remains and a set of dog tags doesn't prove that they once belonged to the same person."

For North Koreans, whose economy has now collapsed, there is an incentive to produce remains: since 1990 they have been paid $1m for "expenses" incurred in locating the remains. In the past, a single set of American remains has been discovered by CILHAI to contain bones from as many as three different bodies. "The North Korean recovery technique are inadequate," says Mr Coles. "They might find a hip here and a leg bone here and think that's good enough to make a person. That's unacceptable to us."

British diplomats in New York were approached by the North Korean mission to the UN in July 1995 with news of the remains. The North wanted a hand- over to be conducted bilaterally between London and Pyongyang. As a member of the UN command, which technically monitors the Korean armistice, Britain insisted that the body be handed over draped in the UN flag.

From the beginning, however, it was assumed on all sides that the remains were British. The British Defence attache in Seoul, Brigadier Colin Parr, negotiated the hand-over with the North Koreans, although he did so in his capacity as a UN representative. When the casket was handed over on 31 October 1995, it was Brigadier Parr who inspected it.

Britain's strict adherence to the terms of the Armistice appears to have cost it dearly. Having surrendered the remains to the Pentagon, it is proving difficult to get them back.

"In hindsight," says one diplomat, "it might have been better if we had never handed them over".

Sam Mercer, of the British Korean Veterans' Association fought with the Gloucestershire Regiment at the Imjin River. "The saddest thing for us was we lost 58 killed in that battle and we were not physically able to bury them," he said.

Because the bodies were left behind enemy lines, many were listed as "Missing in Action", which made it harder for their families to come to terms with. Mr Ellison said: "We will be delighted if everything goes well. It will be be a great load off the family's mind".