Search All Site Content

Total Index: 5816 publications.

Subscribe to our Mailing List!

Sign up for our mailing list to keep up to date on all the latest developments.

The Peninsula

Five Misconceptions About Recovering the Remains of America’s Korean War Servicemen Missing in North Korea

Published August 1, 2018
Category: North Korea

By Ashton Ormes

July 27th this year marked the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement that militarily, though not politically, ended the Korean War.  It also marked the beginning of a new but familiar chapter in the 65 year, often troubled history of U.S./DPRK cooperation in the effort to account for thousands of still missing American servicemen from the Korean War.  On that day, for the first time in eleven years, North Korea returned cases, fifty-five in all, that Pyongyang claimed held the remains of unaccounted for American servicemen found in North Korea.

There are 36,574 Americans listed by the Department of Defense (DOD) as having been killed in the Korean War.  Sixty-five years later, 7,699 of these men are still missing.  Compare this to the Vietnam War where 58,200 Americans died, but only 1,597 are still unaccounted for.  DOD estimates that the remains of most of these missing Korean War servicemen – approximately 5,300 – are still in North Korea.

As shown in the accompanying table, since the signing of the Armistice Agreement, there have only been two extended, multi-year periods during which the DPRK actively cooperated in the effort to account for America’s missing Korean War servicemen.  The first was from 1990-1994 when, at the request of the United Nations Command and the U.S. Government, the DPRK unilaterally recovered and returned up to 400 human remains.  During the second period, from 1996-2005, American military and DOD civilian personnel traveled to North Korea and worked jointly with North Korean soldiers to find and recover the remains of 229 probable American servicemen.

The DPRK’s current failure to fulfill its Singapore Statement commitment to the “immediate repatriation” of remains in its possession by both delaying their return for forty-five days and then withholding most of the 200 sets of remains it has claimed to have recovered is troubling.  Nevertheless, there is room for optimism that the July 27, 2018 repatriation of remains from North Korea will mark the beginning of a new extended period of active DPRK cooperation in America’s mission to find our missing men.  With this new attempt at mutual cooperation ongoing, it is worth clearing up some misconceptions from the past.

Misconception # 1.  North Korea pulled the plug on both the 1990-1994 unilateral recovery program and the 1996-2005 joint recovery program.

In fact, it was the United States that surprised the DPRK by terminating both of these programs.  The 1990-1994 program was terminated at America’s request because of initial difficulty in identifying unilaterally recovered remains with the technology available at that time.  The 1996-2005 joint recovery program was abruptly and unexpectedly halted by the Bush administration because of unspecified “safety concerns.”  The biggest “safety concern” continuing from that time is likely worry that in a time of crisis, or for other political reasons, the DPRK might arbitrarily arrest and imprison one or more American joint recovery team members.

Misconception # 2.  When we see a flag draped coffin or case being returned from North Korea, the remains of a missing American serviceman are inside.

In fact, the only thing that is relatively certain at the time of repatriation, especially when the remains have been unilaterally recovered by the DPRK, is that there are human remains of one or more people inside each coffin or smaller case.  That much is normally verified ahead of time.  It is possible that there are American or other United Nations Command remains in the coffin, hence the respect shown to it.  As the table shows, because of commingling, the remains of up to 400 people were inside the 208 coffins returned from 1990-1994, 181 of whom have since been identified as missing Americans.  The remains of seven people were inside the six cases of remains given to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson during his visit to North Korea in 2007.  Six of them have since been identified as missing Americans.  Only the lengthy identification process proves that a given set of remains is that of a missing American serviceman.

Misconception # 3.  Because of commingling and other problems, it is nearly impossible to identify missing Americans among human remains unilaterally recovered by the DPRK.

That was true in 1994, but, in fact, as the table shows, more identifications to date have come from remains North Koreans unilaterally recovered and repatriated from 1990-1994 than have come from the 1996-2005 joint recoveries (181 to 153), albeit at a lower overall identification rate percentage (45% to 67%).  This is largely a testament to remarkable advances in science, technology, and techniques in recent years.

Misconception # 4.  The DPRK demanded compensation for costs it claimed it incurred during the joint recovery program, but not for the remains it unilaterally recovered.

In fact, it demanded compensation for both, although North Korea certainly received far more compensation for its participation in the joint recovery program, $19.5 million, than it did for its unilateral recoveries, $2.8 million.[15]  It is true that Pyongyang didn’t ask for compensation when it first began returning unilaterally recovered remains in 1990.  It waited until later to drop that card.

Misconception # 5.  The DPRK’s primary motivation for assisting in accounting for missing Americans is money.

In fact, Pyongyang’s primary motivation is political.  It seeks to satisfy long-standing U.S. government policy that North Korea’s assistance in this effort is a precondition to any improvement in relations with the United States and to turn the remains issue to its own political advantage in other ways.  That didn’t stop its negotiators from keeping up a never ending demand for more and more compensation, however; a practice that significantly slowed progress on this issue, frustrated American negotiators, and compromised the good will Pyongyang could otherwise have earned from the American people for their help in bringing home our missing servicemen.


Ashton Ormes is a retired U.S. Army colonel, an Army Northeast Asia Foreign Area Officer, and a former civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who was previously involved in efforts to recover the remains of U.S. servicemen from North Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from

[1] In compliance with the Armistice Agreement – from September 1st to November 9th, 1954 – North Korea and China disinterred and returned the remains of 2,944 Americans servicemen.  Many of them had previously been identified and buried in military cemeteries in North Korea that were later overrun by Chinese troops in the autumn of 1950.  U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum “Operation Glory” and Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office Fact Sheet “Operation Glory and South Korean Unknowns” June 28, 2012

[2] Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command (DPAA) Fact Sheet “Progress on Korean War Personnel Accounting” June 18, 2018

[3] Ibid

[4] On April 11, 2007, during a visit to North Korea, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was presented with six cases of remains.  Ibid and James Klatell, Associated Press “N. Korea Releases Remains of U.S. War Dead” April 11, 2007

[5] Remains returned on July 27, 2018.  Other information not yet available.

[6] During unilateral remains recovery operations, North Koreans recover remains in North Korea without any Americans present and prepare them for repatriation.  During joint recovery operations, American military and civilian personnel travel to North Korea, jointly recover remains with North Korean assistance, and prepare the remains for repatriation.

[7] “Coffins/Cases” is the total number of coffins or smaller cases of remains repatriated during the time period given at the top of the column.  The North Koreans repatriating remains they had unilaterally recovered may have believed that the remains of only a single person were in each coffin, but they often commingled more than one person’s remains in individual coffins.

[8] “Remains Returned” figures are numbers of individual human remains returned.

[9] “Remains Identified” figures are numbers of missing American servicemen identified through June 18, 2018 from the total number of remains returned within the same column.

[10] 2,528 is the number identified in the 1950’s.  The rest were buried as “unknown”.  101 previously “unknown” Korean War American servicemen from various sources have recently been identified, according to the DPAA Korean War accounting fact sheet.

[11] The identification rate is the percentage of the repatriated remains in the same column that have been identified to date as previously unaccounted for American servicemen missing since the Korea War .

[12] “Compensation Paid” is the amount of money paid by the U.S. Government to North Korea in compensation for claimed expenses while conducting or supporting the remains recoveries during the time period given at the top of the same column

[13] Korea Herald “UNC passes $2 mil. To N.K. for helping recover GI remains” May 21, 1996

[14] Eric Talmadge, Associated Press “Remains of U.S. MIA in North Korea in political limbo” March 24, 2016

[15] Korea Herald “UNC passes $2 mil. To N.K. for helping recover GI remains” May 21, 1996

Return to the Peninsula

Stay Informed
Register to receive updates from KEI