NKorea Falls Short on Returning Remains07/19 06:09
More than a month after North Korea pledged to immediately return some
American war dead, the promise is unfulfilled.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than a month after North Korea pledged to
immediately return some American war dead, the promise is unfulfilled.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Pyongyang this month to
press the North Koreans further, said Wednesday the return could begin "in the
next couple of weeks." But it could take months or years to positively identify
the bones as those of specific American servicemen.
In a joint statement at their Singapore summit, President Donald Trump and
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to recovering the remains of
prisoners of war and those missing in action decades after the Korean War ---
"including the immediate repatriation of those already identified."
That was more than a month ago, on June 12. Although Trump said eight days
later that the repatriation had happened, it had not. It still has not. So, it
was not "immediate," though the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported from South
Korea on Tuesday that the North has agreed to transfer as many as 55 sets of
remains next week. The Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment on
any specifics promised by the North.
"We're making progress along the border to get the return of remains, a very
important issue for those families," Pompeo said Wednesday at the White House.
"I think in the next couple of weeks we'll have the first remains returned,
that's the commitment, so progress certainly being made there."
Likely also to prove untrue is the part of the Trump-Kim statement that said
the North had war remains "already identified." It apparently has bones and
perhaps associated personal effects, but history shows that any remains handed
over by the North are likely to be difficult to identify. In recent days the
State Department has changed that phrase to "already collected," suggesting it
realized the remains have not been identified.
"There are no missing Americans who have been 'already identified' by the
DPRK (North Korea) to be repatriated," says Paul Cole, who has researched
POW-MIA issues from the Korean War for decades and served for four years as a
scientific fellow at the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in
Hawaii. He said this element of the Singapore statement "reflects a near total
ignorance of the role of science" in accounting for war dead.
There is even some doubt that any remains turned over would be of Americans.
Trump admitted as much in a CBS News interview July 14.
"You know, remains are complicated," he said. "Some of the remains, they
don't even know if they are remains."
That's a big step back from his false assertion June 20 in Duluth,
Minnesota: "We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today,
already 200 got sent back."
Richard Downes, whose father, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes, is among the Korean
War missing, says hopes may have been raised too quickly.
"Yes, the Singapore statement overpromised," he said, "exacerbated by our
hope that it was accurate."
Hope has long sustained Downes and thousands of other Americans who seek
closure after decades of uncertainty about a relative missing from the war. The
Pentagon says 7,699 U.S. servicemen are missing from Korea, including about
5,300 believed to be in the North. Downes, 70, was 3 when his father's B-26
Invader went down on Jan. 13, 1952, northeast of Pyongyang, the North Korean
capital. His family was left to wonder about his fate. Downes is now executive
director of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, which
advocates for remains recovery.
The Singapore statement may yet prove to be an important breakthrough.
Bringing its promise to fruition, however, is proving harder than Trump made it
As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies put
it in a web essay last week, "What was supposed to be the easiest item on the
United States-North Korea negotiations agenda --- the return of Korean War
soldiers' remains --- is proving to be yet another sticking point."
Beyond the promised initial return of remains that the North may have been
holding in storage for years, the State Department said Sunday the two sides
have agreed to restart searches for burial locations of U.S. war remains in
North Korea. That effort was suspended by the U.S. in 2005. This raises another
delicate issue to be negotiated: how much the U.S. would pay the North for this
access. In the past it has paid millions, saying the money was "fair and
reasonable compensation" for the North's help, not payment for bones or
In Fitzpatrick's view, the North has dangled the promise of war remains as
bait to attain political objectives such as progress toward a peace treaty to
replace the armistice agreement that ended the fighting on the Korean Peninsula
in July 1953. The North sees this political objective as an essential element
of ending what it calls Washington's hostile policy toward the North, which in
turn is linked to its willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.
The Singapore summit was mainly about Trump's push to rid North Korea of its
nuclear weapons. He said afterward there was no longer a nuclear threat from
the North, though Kim agreed only to "work toward complete denuclearization of
the Korean Peninsula," and no detailed plan has been worked out. On Tuesday,
Trump seemed to reveal his own doubts about timing. He told reporters, "We have
no rush for speed," adding, "We're just going through the process."