North Korea expected to hand over US remains Friday, South Korean media reports
Visitors look at the names of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. (Ahn Young-Joon/AP) July 26 at 3:56 PM Email the author
SEOUL â" North Korea is expected to hand over the remains of a number of U.S. service members who were killed during the Korean War on Friday, the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting, according to reports in South Korean media.
If the exchange happens, it would mean that one part of the agreement reached between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 has been partially fulfilled â" albeit more slowly than many had anticipated.
Yonhap News Agency reported Th ursday that North Korea has accepted 100 wooden transit caskets that it plans to use to return the remains Friday. The U.S. military command in South Korea moved the caskets into the demilitarized zone that splits the Korean Peninsula in late June.
The potential recovery was greeted with cautious optimism by Rick Downes, executive director of a group of families whose loved ones never came home from the Korean War. They have watched discussions in recent weeks with a mixture of hope and cynicism, he said.
âThese are poker chips, unfortunately,â said Downes, who runs the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs. âThese guys, these missing men, are still serving. The war still goes on, and they are being negotiated and used as a bargaining tool.â
[For the U.S., a frustrating history of recovering human remains in North Korea]
A U.S. official told The Washington Post last week that North Korea has agreed to hand over about 55 sets of remains. Friday was suggested as a likely date for the repatriation because of its symbolic importance as the anniversary of the armistice, but the official cautioned that the date could change and that the number of remains would need to be checked after they are handed over.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has worked on repatriation issues and visited North Korea several times, said Thursday that he sees the potential recovery as a positive first step. But he warned that Pyongyang could stall in delivering other remains and attempt to use the issue as a way to make money.
âTheyâll give a certain amount of remains for free right away,â Richardson predicted. âBut then theyâll say, âThe next ones, we need to find them, locate them, restore them.â And then theyâll start charging, and theyâll milk this.â
Though the United States has a policy of refusing to pay for the repatriation of remains, in the past, it has agreed to provide some funding for expenses incurred by the North Koreans.
The Pentagon estimates that nearly 7,700 U.S. troops are unaccounted for from the war; among them are 5,300 believed to have been killed north of the 38th parallel, which largely coincides with the boundary between North and South Korea.
The North Korean government is believed to have somewhere between 120 and 200 sets of U.S. military remains in its possession and ready to deliver, but there are thousands more still in the North Korean countryside, said Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement that the former governor founded.
Some remains were buried by U.S. troops in cemeteries that were intended to be temporary until Chinaâs entry in the Korean War forced U.S. forces to withdraw farther south. Other remains are at sites where aircraft crashed or in unmarked graves, Bergman said.
âOne of the things that is so important is for the American people to under stand that this is just the beginning,â he said. âThis is going to take years. Itâs going to take interviews and sight surveys and teams on the ground. My fear is that we will get these remains and once again say âMission accomplished!â And itâs not.â
If the remains are returned, scientific testing will be needed to confirm that they belong to American soldiers from the Korean War. In the past, North Korea has been accused of deliberately including non-American bones â" even animal bones â" in a bid to fool U.S. authorities.
The remains will be sent to Hawaii, where the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency runs a laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The identification process there could take years, U.S. officials have said. It often includes a review of archival information that determines where certain U.S. troops were likely to have gone missing or been buried.
After the historic summit between the two leaders last month, Trump and Kim agreed to work together to recover U.S. remains left in North Korea and to implement the âimmediate repatriation of those already identified.â
Only a few days after meeting Kim, Trump portrayed the return of the remains as something that had already happened. âWe got back our great fallen heroes, the remains,â he told a campaign rally in Minnesota. âIn fact, today, already 200 have been sent back.â
However, while the U.S. military had moved caskets into the Korean Peninsulaâs joint security area in anticipation, no remains had been sent back. Soon, negotiations were dragging out longer than many had expected.
âThat it took this long to secure such low-hanging fruit is a bad sign that North Korea intends to lean on its traditional negotiating posture,â Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said of the prospective repatriation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expecte d to return with remains when he visited Pyongyang for an overnight stay July 6. But after his team was criticized by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, his visit only highlighted tensions between the United States and North Korea over the return of the remains and issues surrounding denuclearization.
On July 12, North Korean military officials left their U.S. counterparts waiting for hours at the joint security area before belatedly calling to request that they reschedule their prearranged meeting. Only after this meeting and subsequent ones was practical progress made.
One part of the holdup appeared to be North Korean requests for payment.
The last time North Koreaâs military returned likely remains of American troops was in 2005 amid escalating tensions with Pyongyang, when the United States halted a program that had been running since the 1990s.
In 2007, Richardson visited North Korea on a private mission that had the approval of the Bush admini stration. Richardson returned with the remains of six servicemen.
The return of the remains now would come after commercial satellite imagery appeared to show that North Korea had destroyed part of a satellite-testing facility that was part of the countryâs missile-development program. Trump, who told reporters in June that North Korea had agreed to destroy that facility, said Tuesday that the United States appreciated the move.
Lamothe reported from Washington.
U.S. expecting war dead remains from North Korea within 2 weeks, official says
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