memoriam

South Korea Asks Queens Cemetery for WWI Veteran’s Remains

World War I veteran Gihwan Whang’s gravestone in Maspeth’s Mount Olivet cemetery, on Dec. 11, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Nearly a century after a Korean World War I veteran was buried in Queens, the South Korean government is seeking to honor him by relocating his remains to a national cemetery in the country of his birth.

Gihwan Whang fought for the U.S. military in WWI and served as a secretary to a Korean representative to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated. He was also a leader in Korea’s movement for independence from Japan.

Whang died of heart disease in April 1923 and was buried at Maspeth’s Mt. Olivet cemetery.

The South Korean government recently decided that Whang should be moved to Daejeon National Cemetery “to most properly honor him and preserve his patriotic spirit in Korea,” according to the court petition filed Friday.

A Rare Case

Whang was among the Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants who have fought in the U.S. Army since the 19th century. After WWI, roughly 180,000 Asian-Americans resided in the U.S., according to the Army’s website.

From 1920 to 1921, Whang was a diplomat for Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in England and a member of a committee liaising between Korea’s government, Europe and the U.S., according to court documents.

Gihwan Whang in an undated picture.
Gihwan Whang in an undated picture. Photo: Courtesy of Yonhap News

Flushing-based attorney Youngsoo Choi, who is representing South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs in the matter, said he was unaware of prior instances of the country requesting the remains of Korean citizens buried in the U.S.

“As far as I know, this is a rare case for the Korean government to get involved in all of that,” Choi said.

Hyosun Lim, secretary to the consul at The Korean Consulate General in New York, said the effort was part of a broader campaign by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to transfer the remains of Korean independence activists buried abroad back to Korea. Lim estimated that five bodies were transferred to Daejeon National Cemetery last year.

‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’

Lim added that Whang had “devoted his life for the independence movement of Korea.”

Little is known about Whang’s life in Queens, other than that he was a member of the New York Korean Church.

The church’s current pastor, Youngbo Lee, said that several years ago, a member of the congregation spotted Whang’s tombstone at Mount Olivet. Following the discovery, the South Korean government began investigating.

Lee described Whang as a patriot who dedicated his life to his country.

“Now that we found his body, he must be buried back in Korea,” Lee said in Korean. “It is due courtesy to those who sacrificed blood, sweat and tears and their lives for Korea’s independence.”

‘Remember His Legacy’

A representative for Mount Olivet said that the cemetery had not yet heard about the Korean government’s disinterment petition, but noted that similar requests are usually submitted by family members. The cemetery, which was founded in 1850, spans 71 acres.

Exhuming a body does not always require court action. Under state law, authorization by relatives, such as any surviving children or spouses, is sufficient grounds. Court orders are required when immediate family can’t or won’t sign off.

The Daejeon National Cemetery in South Korea.
The Daejeon National Cemetery in South Korea. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

All disinterments in New York City, with the exception of those ordered by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner or a district attorney, also require permits issued by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

The city Health Department did not have recent data on the annual number of disinterments readily available.

Mark Cuthbertson, a Huntington-based attorney specializing in cemetery law, said that in his experience a majority of such requests involve children attempting to bury parents together.

With no known surviving relatives, the Korean government is trying to “permanently remember his legacy in the most honorable place,” the court documents read.

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