PAJU, South Korea (AFP) - South Korea began to prepare the remains of 437 Chinese soldiers killed in the Korean War for repatriation on Monday, more than 60 years after the conflict ended.
Military forensic officers placed the remains in dark brown coffins after a ceremony watched by Chinese officials and South Korean army Brigadier General Moon Sang-Gyu at a temporary charnel house in Paju just south of the border with North Korea.
The move will be the first such return of Chinese soldiers' remains since the three-year war ended in 1953.
"It will take about two weeks to place all the remains in coffins and complete preparations for repatriation," a defence ministry spokesman said.
At the end of March, they will be brought to a state cemetery in China's northern city of Shenyang.
South Korea has described the move as a new milestone for relations between the former Cold War enemies.
"We hope this will provide an opportunity for South Korea and China to open a new chapter in relations," Moon said.
China fought alongside North Korea in the war. Casualty figures remain disputed but Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400,000 Chinese deaths, while Chinese sources mention a toll of about 180,000.
The ceremony followed months of work to excavate the remains of Chinese war dead buried in a military-controlled cemetery in Paju.
More than 700 North Korean soldiers are also interred at the cemetery. But the North has ignored the South's offer to return the bodies despite sporadic talks on the issue.
The cemetery was established in 1996 to serve as the final resting place for North Korean and Chinese soldiers previously buried in small plots scattered around South Korea.
While some graves are named, most are identified only by nationality.