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The Peninsula

The Significance of North Korea’s Repatriation of American Soldiers' Remains

Published July 30, 2018
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

By Robert R. King

Last Friday (July 27) some 55 sets of human remains were transferred to United States military personnel by North Korean military officials in the city of Wonson, North Korea.  These were identified by the North as the remains of American soldiers from the Korean War.  With great respect and appropriate formal military honors, the remains were received and immediately taken to the Osan Air Base in South Korea.  On August 1st they will be moved to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii where specialists will attempt to identify these remains.  On August 1st  Vice President Mike Pence will be on hand when the remains are repatriated to United States soil.

The United States has always taken great care to identify and repatriate the bodies of American soldiers who died defending their country.  The military tribute, respect and honor shown for these remains was obvious in the video of the transfer ceremony.  The Korean War was fought as a United Nations action under UN command with the participation of many nations, though the United States provided by far the largest foreign contingent of troops and military equipment for the conflict.  As a result each set of remains were covered in a United Nations flag.  Subsequently, when the identity of the remains is established, those that are American citizens will be given appropriate American military honors.

There is much time-consuming work to be done by Defense Department officials to determine whether these remains are in fact American servicemen, and to establish the identity of the individuals.  DNA analysis, dental records, and other forensic science are remarkable tools, but it is not quick.  The identity of an American soldier whose remains were returned from North Korea to the United States sometime before 2005 was identified and given a burial with full military honors in Seattle only in 2012.

Past U.S. Remains Recovery Efforts

U.S. Defense Department officials report the number of American military personnel who were lost in Korea and whose bodies have not been recovered totals as many as 8,000.  The hostile relationship between the U.S. and North Korea has made recovery efforts difficult.  The first return of remains to the United States came in 1990, when the bodies of five servicemen were returned after some two years of difficult negotiations and diplomatic maneuvering.  Protracted negotiations between the U.S. and the DPRK on missing military personnel continued in the 1990s as the U.S. and North Korea made progress in efforts leading to the Agreed Framework on nuclear issues.  By 1996 the remains of 208 individuals had been transferred to the U.S. and of those, 181 were identified as U.S. servicemen.

An additional 153 individuals were identified as American servicemen from remains that were recovered by U.S. and North Korean officials during the decade from 1996 to 2005.  During this time some progress in negotiations with the North on efforts to limit nuclear development, and the progress on remains recovery was part of the broader effort to make progress on denuclearization and improve relations.  A subsequent military report, however, made public through a Freedom of Information Act request from the AP in 2013 found that the North Koreans had “planted” or “salted” remains at battlefield sites so they would be found by American investigators.  The North used the return of remains as a tool to improve relations with the United States.

From 2005 through 2011 recovery efforts were halted as relations soured between the United States and North Korea, particularly after the DPRK tested its first nuclear device in October 2006 and its second in April 2009.  Six sets of remains were handed over to then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on his 2007 trip to North Korea, apparently part of an effort to spark improved relations with the U.S. after the first nuclear test.  This gift to Governor Richardson did not lead to further progress at that time.

Transition to Kim Jong-un’s Leadership Puts Efforts on Hold

In 2011, relations between the U.S. and the North again began to improve.  Pyongyang indicated to American officials an interest in resuming Six-Party talks on denuclearization, requested U.S. humanitarian assistance, and began negotiations with the Defense Department on remains recovery of U.S. military personnel.

As U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights issues at that time, I led a U.S. delegation to Pyongyang in May 2011 to assess North Korean needs for humanitarian aid and to negotiate regarding U.S. conditions if aid were to be provided.  We needed to provide assurances to Congress that any humanitarian aid would be based on established need and that any aid would be focused on those most in need.  We had positive discussions with the North Koreans, and an American citizen detained by the North for the previous seven months was released to me when we left.  We held two additional rounds of discussions in Beijing with the North Koreans in December 2011 and March 2012.

In October of 2011, Department of Defense officials met in Bangkok with North Korean counterparts on resuming efforts to find and identify the remains of American military personnel still in Korea from the time of the Korean War.  At least one whole container of materials for a U.S. mission to search for American troop remains in the DPRK was shipped to North Korea for the resumption of search activities in the early spring of 2012.

The effort to move forward with North Korea on the resumption of Six Party Talks was reached in the so-called “Leap-Day Deal” signed February 29, 2012.  This agreement, as well as agreements on the provision of humanitarian assistance and the search for U.S. servicemen remains from the Korean War, were all abruptly terminated in March 2012 when North Korea announced that it planned a ballistic missile firing to “launch a satellite.”  Of all these efforts underway at that time, the search for U.S. servicemen remains was the furthest along.

It was the change in leadership in North Korea that most likely stopped progress on remains recovery, as well as the resumption of Six Party Talks and humanitarian aid.  Kim Jong-il died December 17, 2011, and his son Kim Jong-un began the steps to assume the reins of power immediately afterward.  He was named Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army a week later, even before his father’s funeral.  Initially there were questions about whether he would become supreme leader immediately because he was young and had limited leadership experience.  There was some thought that his uncle would serve as regent.  It took over two years for Kim Jong-un to complete his consolidation of power.  Two years after his father’s death, Kim had his uncle Jang Song-thaek publicly arrested at a Central Committee plenary session, and it was shown on national television that evening.  Jang was summarily executed a few days later, apparently in front of a select audience of senior officials.

During the period of leadership transition, Kim Jong-un was particularly focused on establishing the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability.  Under his leadership four more nuclear weapons were tested, and in 2016 alone there were 16 major missile tests.  During the six year period from his father’s death in December 2011 until the last nuclear missile tests at the end of 2017, Kim unequivocally established his role as leader and demonstrated North Korea’s military capability.  Only after he had done that was he ready to engage in diplomacy.

Why North Korea Returns American Servicemen Remains

Returning the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War is not a particularly sensitive issue for the North.  It is obviously important to the United States government, the American military, and the American people. It is a bargaining chip and a source of ready cash with little cost to the North.

Economic sanctions against the DPRK appear to be creating an economic pinch, but returning American troop remains has significant economic benefits.  The cooperation of North Korean officials is essential to conduct searches inside that country and to remove remains that may be discovered, but this comes with a price.  A report of the Congressional Research Service, an official arm of the U.S. Congress, concluded that “Between 1996 and 2005, the Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) provided the North Korean military with over $20 million for assistance in recovering the suspected remains.”  It is not clear yet what costs might have been involved in the just completed repatriation or what costs might follow if more aggressive recovery efforts are resumed.

With North Korea beginning to feel the pinch of United Nations economic sanctions, Pyongyang is clearly pursuing policies to undermine the sanctions.  The United States has been the toughest advocate for sanctions over the last two decades.  If the United States makes significant payments to the North for aid in the recovery of American servicemen, it will be much more difficult to hold a hard line on sanctions vis-à-vis the Chinese, Russians and other North Korean economic partners.

While the economic benefits are an important consideration for the North, providing remains of American servicemen is also a cheap and easy way for the North to keep the United States at least somewhat happy as Pyongyang seeks improved economic and political relations with China, South Korea, and other countries.

North Korea clearly has not been anxious to make progress on denuclearization—the key U.S. request in President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.  Kim received stunning accolades from the American President, to say nothing of the legitimizing impact of photographs of the two leaders standing before a mass of North Korean and American flags at a joint press conference.

Follow-up conversations with the North, however, have been disappointingly meager from the American point of view.  Secretary of State Pompeo’s meeting in Pyongyang just after July 4th was disappointing, to say the least.  A requested meeting between Pompeo and Kim Jong-un did not take place because Kim was apparently making an inspection visit to a potato farm.  Clearly Kim is not ready to talk denuclearization, and America is left holding an empty bag after the Singapore Summit.

The return of U.S. servicemen remains is extremely important to Americans and it should not be minimized.  But at the same time the return of these possible remains is a way for Pyongyang to give the White House a benefit from the Singapore Summit that it can tout.  The President has done that in his personal tweet thanking Kim Jong-un and announcing that Vice President Pence will be on hand in Hawaii when the remains are returned.

Holding out the possibility of further remains recovery operations with the United States can be helpful in keeping the U.S. government cooperative, despite lack of success on denuclearization.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.    

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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