- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

A South Korean governmental advisory board has made recommendations that raise the specter of mass exhumations of hundreds of thousands of bodies from national cemeteries.

According to the proposals put forward by a prime ministerial advisory council, burials in national cemeteries would be limited to former presidents. Others would be cremated as a space-saving measure.

The proposal, announced Friday by the Office for Government Policy Coordination, was part of a tentative development plan for the nation’s overcrowded national cemeteries.

Currently, senior military officers as well as police and other public service officials who die in the line of duty, and patriots who die for the country, may be interred in the cemeteries.

The panel also suggested establishing a committee to review the eligibility for interment in national cemeteries, and limiting burials in the cemeteries to 60 years — with the exception of former presidents, who would be permitted to rest in the ground indefinitely. Once the 60-year limit expires for other persons buried there, descendents would only be allowed to keep memorial tablets in the cemeteries.

For bodies already buried, the committee would review the cases to decide whether the bodies would be permitted to remain.

The number of potential exhumations could be enormous: 160,000 bodies are buried in Seoul’s 343-acre national cemetery alone.

The proposals are designed to promote cremation over burial among the general population, as the nation’s supply of land for burial sites is shrinking.

“[If this happened] I think it would promote negative sentiments, as it would break traditional values of respect for ancestors,” said Song Ho-keun, a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

Korea is a country with strong Confucian traditions. Hillsides nationwide are dotted with family graves, which are visited by descendents on national holidays and are often elaborately maintained.

However, moving family remains from one location to another is not totally alien to Korean customs.

“Before he became president [in 1997], Kim Dae-jung moved his father’s grave from the island where he was buried to lie next to his second wife. That was considered a more propitious site,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of “The Koreans.”

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