How the Australian team went to the world's most dangerous dirt track to recover the remains of the dead soldiers

When North Korean communist forces crossed the border and rampaged through the south, Joonhee Wang's grandparents fled fearing for their lives.

Born in the north, his family spent every night listening to gunfire as both sides battled for victory in the early 1950s.

Only when the north reached the port city of Busan, where South Korean and allied forces made their final stand, did the tide of war finally turn.

The fighting ended in 1953, but in Korea the conflict was frozen in time.

The two opposing sides, still technically at war, are separated by a heavily fortified area called the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the Korean peninsula.

It is considered the most dangerous dirt track in the world.

But a team of Australian specialists, including Joonhee, risk their lives to travel to the zone and recover the bodies of those lost in history.

The risky process of restoring the body in the danger zone

For decades, Joonhee Wang's grandparents never spoke of the horrors of that bloody period of history.

Joonhee moved from South Korea to Australia as a teenager, because his parents wanted to broaden his worldview.

He joined the Royal Australian Air Force after training as a pharmacist and became an aviation lieutenant.

Then in July, the 30-year-old returned to her birthplace as part of a special overseas mission, called Operation Linesman.

While standing in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, he finally had a chance to ask his grandparents about their experiences. "It was unspoken," said Joonhee.

"None of my parents heard the story of this war, it was unspoken because they didn't want to share their sad history."

Now Joonhee plays a major role in helping to recover some of that past.

Working alongside two other Australian defense personnel — prominent aviator Ben Whitfield of the Royal Australian Air Force and minor officer Jason Wilson of the Australian Navy — the three were tasked with enforcing an elaborate ceasefire, signed at the end of the Korean War, and enforced by United Nations Command.

Their work allowed South Korean troops to enter the Demilitarized Zone to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers. But it's very risky.

Landmines and other unexploded ordnance litter the ground and need to be carefully removed in order for work to continue.

"We are primarily making sure everyone operating in the demilitarized zone is operating safely, in a manner where they can return home afterwards," Whitfield said.

"There are rules you have to follow. These rules cover everything from wearing the correct identity to how you operate.

"[The armistice] also limits what types of items you can bring into the demilitarized zone, such as weapons."

A deal was made to recover the lost soldiers

After the defeat of the Empire of Japan in World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into two camps: the north, controlled by the Soviet Union, and the south, supported by the United States.

After a large troop buildup, the North Korean People's Army launched a massive surprise attack against South Korea, storming across the 38th parallel, dividing the two sides.

The United States and its allies, including Australia, sent troops to help the besieged south, while China sent troops to fight in the north.

The momentum of the conflict changed many times, but the two forces finally returned to their respective sides at the 38th parallel.

Australia was nominated to form Operation Linesman after the two Koreas reached an agreement in 2018 that would allow troops into the Demilitarized Zone for body recovery and repatriation.

The three Australian defense personnel were rotated after about five months.

"I know the history, from lessons and classes," said Joonhee.

"But to stand my ground, where all of that happened, I can contribute to soldiers returning home means a lot and is precious to me."

In the years of recovery of the remains, at least 475 bodies have been recovered.

Many of the South Korean and allied soldiers who died still wore dog tags, making identification relatively easy. The South and its allies also have decent records of those fighting.

But sometimes specialist detective work is required.

During the final battle, South Korean and allied soldiers dug into the trenches, as they fended off the final attacks from the north and China.

This meant that where the body was found, on the ground or in the trenches, could indicate which side the soldier was fighting for.

Often, a DNA test is needed to identify soldiers and link them to a family.

"We need to make sure that we remember that their sacrifices and services are not forgotten," said Joonhee.

"People come from all over the world to fight for peace.

"They must return to their homes."

Why is recovery so important for families?

One of the most recent recoveries is Kim Young-hwan's eldest brother, Kim Il-soo.

He was only five years old when Kim Il-soo was brought to war.

Young-hwan says his brother is too young to register, but local officials send him anyway. Some time later, the family received a notification saying his brother was missing in action.

"Every time my mom was on and off the pitch she would cry my brother's name," he said.

Young-hwan's parents died never knowing where their son died.

But this year, Young-hwan is given news he never expected. His brother has been found.

Officials had matched his DNA that he provided about three years earlier with the remains found.

Several items of value were also taken, including a metal spoon and a belt.

Now, Kim Il-soo's cremated remains are on display at the National Cemetery Charnel in Seoul.

"I can come here once a year and greet my brother until I die," Young-hwan said.

Despite getting closure, Young-hwan says his heart is heavy knowing there are so many others yet to be found.

"Those who can't find it will be heartbroken," he said.

The long road to reunite bodies with loved ones

With some 10,000 bodies strewn across the Demilitarized Zone, it's impossible to find everything that went missing in the Korean War.

The South Korean recovery team focused on battle sites where the greatest number of bodies could be found within a restricted area.

Currently, they were at the site of the Battle of the White Horse, where South Korean, French, and American troops fought against the Chinese army.

Despite the fact that Australia was not part of this particular battle, petty officer Jason Wilson still felt a personal connection.

"They are our friends, our allies," he said.

"I feel a bit connected here because we still have 42 Australians left on the Korean peninsula MIA.

"While we may not be able to recover it, being a part of this project is somewhat satisfying."

The Australian relationship is something Kim Young-hwan values.

"The Koreans have no choice but to join the battle," he said.

“But I am very grateful to the soldiers who came to Korea from abroad. It is very sad and heartbreaking that they died here.

"I want to thank Australia for saving our country during the Korean war."

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