With Friday’s repatriation of 55 sets of MIA/POW remains, and the expected resumption of joint efforts on the ground following further negotiations soon, many are asking how we got here and how this time may be different from the past.
The newest round of negotiations over remains comes after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s June agreement in Singapore committing to resuming the recovery process.
“The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” the fourth point of that declaration read.
Today’s transfer represents those “already identified,” while negotiations over further joint activities have yet to conclude.
The Department of Defense (DoD) POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) maintains today that of around 7800 military service members still missing from the Korean War, the remains of approximately 5300 are believed to be scattered across North Korea.
The process of the two countries finding a way to work together on the remains issue has been ongoing for decades, and has frequently been beset by long periods of silence or disagreements.
The first transfer of remains since 1954 came in May 1990, as the New York Times reported the repatriation of five U.S. servicemen following “more than two years of delays and diplomatic maneuvering.”
The next repatriation came a year later, when U.S. Senator Robert C. Smith secured 11 more sets of remains at the conclusion of multi-day talks with North Korean counterparts.
And just as Friday’s transfer falls on the 65th anniversary of the July 27 Korean War Armistice agreement, the two sides at that time highlighted their shared consideration for the symbolic dates of these transfers by conducting them around the 41st anniversary of the June 25 start of the Korean War.
But another year passed before more of these unilateral repatriations by North Korea, coming in two instances of 15 sets of remains each in May 1992.
The U.S. received an additional 162 sets of remains between 1990 and 1992, bringing the total of unilaterally-transferred sets of remains to 208 through 1996.
DPAA records indicate only 181 individual U.S. servicemen could be identified from those received over that period.
Another six sets of individual remains were handed over in small cases in April 2007 to a team led by then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who traveled to Panmunjom officially to address the remains issue (but who also met with top nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan).
JOINT FIELD ACTIVITIES
Military-level talks on setting up joint remains recovery missions in North Korean territory were held in Hawaii in January 1996, the first such talks since the end of the Korean War.
The first jointly-retrieved remains came just a few months later and weeks after U.S. teams arrived in the North to begin their efforts in early July. The Pentagon announced that one set of skeletal remains would be immediately repatriated, as a team on the ground was able to find them after moving to a new site based on information received through interviews with locals, the Times reported.
These efforts lasted until 2005 and were conducted by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), which was absorbed into a new consolidated organization – the DPAA – in 2015.
But while the U.S. gained logistical benefits from joint operations over 33 separate missions, the number of remains recovered over that decade may be considered disappointing when compared to the more than 5000 missing.
The U.S. suspended operations in 2005, citing fears of safety of their JPAC mission members in North Korea amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.
An agreement was then reached over six years later in Bangkok in October 2011, where the two sides agreed to resume JFAs the following spring. The AP reported in March 2012 on the imminent resumption, saying that four missions would occur before September and that a U.S. ship had already delivered supplies for the missions to the North.
Soon after, however, the Pentagon again suspended its efforts before the missions could take place, with an announcement in late March citing concerns over an upcoming North Korean rocket launch.
Though the DPAA website today lists a total of 153 individuals identified from 229 caskets (or rather, groupings of remains thought initially to be 229 individuals) through the 1996-2005 joint field activities (JFAs), it was discovered later that the Pentagon was harboring evidence of both North Korean tampering with the skeletal remains and internal organizational issues with the JPAC.
AN UNCERTAIN PROCESS
Almost a decade after the last joint mission in North Korea, U.S. military families still awaiting news of their long-missing relatives received further doubts about the process.
Upon receiving an internal report through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Associated Press discovered in 2013 that the Pentagon had decided to cover up findings from the previous year that North Korea had engaged in deceptive practices while hosting U.S. recovery teams.
The report stated that North Koreans supposedly re-buried remains taken from storage for JPAC teams to then rediscover at major battle sites. Some bones examined by the U.S. forensic team in Hawaii (where the DPAA is still based today) also apparently contained drill holes and cut marks suggesting prior “use” by North Koreans.
The head of the JPAC at the time admitted organizational issues and inefficient practices, but internal memos also received by the AP showed that the report was suppressed in part due to concerns over insufficient evidence of North Korean tampering with the process.
The AP reported, however, that at least one U.S. participant in the missions corroborated accounts of such “salting” of recovery sites by North Koreans.
So while the Pentagon reshuffled organizations in 2015, creating the DPAA in an attempt to reset the effectiveness of POW/MIA recovery efforts, the organization now still faces uncertain conditions and, if historical joint efforts are any indication, recovery targets only in the dozens per year towards the goal of recovering more than 5000 individuals total.
The U.S. paid USD$897,000 to North Korea for the initial 46 sets of remains unilaterally returned between 1990 and 1992
Besides the obvious physical and logistical hurdles inside the DPRK, the U.S. has also long been hampered by concerns from both its negotiators and voters back home over payments made to the North and the potential for misuse of funds by the nuclear-armed state.
The DPAA website states that while “the Secretary of Defense is authorized to pay fair and reasonable compensation for the efforts associated with recovering remains,” it says the U.S. does not pay for information or the remains themselves.
The Times reported in 1996 that the U.S. paid USD$897,000 to North Korea for the initial 46 sets of remains unilaterally returned between 1990 and 1992, and that North Korea requested USD$4 million for the returns repatriated between 1993-1994. But after talks in Hawaii in early 1996, North Korean officials reportedly turned down a USD$1 million offer from the U.S. to settle the “bill.”
A deal was finally reached in May 1996 after talks in New York, where the two sides agreed to begin joint searches for remains and that the North would receive USD$2 million from the U.S. for its prior unilateral efforts recovering and delivering remains.
A 2016 U.S. Congressional Research Service report stated that the U.S. “provided the North Korean military with over $20 million for assistance in recovering the suspected remains” between 1996 and 2005, bringing the known total to around USD$23 million for both unilateral and joint efforts.
Just before the failed 2012 restarting of JFAs, the AP quoted Air Force Maj. Carie Parker as saying the agreed payment for the four planned recovery missions was $5.7 million. This number, amounting to about 25% of the total paid over the previous 15 years of efforts combined, representing a major increase in North Korean demands.
“It is not in our interest to share every detail of our negotiations”
When asked to about how much money the U.S. is preparing to pay North Korea for any upcoming remains transfers, a State Department spokesperson earlier this week avoided answering the question, instead telling NK News that the U.S. is continuing “coordination on the transfer of remains already collected in the DPRK, and the re-commencing of field operations in the DPRK.”
“This is one of the most important national security challenges facing us today. It is not in our interest to share every detail of our negotiations,” the spokesperson added.
The 55 boxes of remains prepared by North Korea and now at Osan Air Base will receive preliminary inspection from DPAA experts this week before a formal ceremony is held on August 1 as they are sent to Hawaii to begin the long identification process.
The number of individuals that will be successfully identified from this batch is likely to be below the initial number of transfer cases.
With today’s repatriation falling on the 65th Korean War Armistice anniversary, both sides have demonstrated a trust-building action as they look to keep talks on other matters going. But past successes in the process of recovering U.S. war remains occurred intermittently and dispersed among the familiar ups and downs of nuclear negotiations.
In realistic terms, the successful recovery of 55 sets of remains today does not provide any assurances that the U.S. and North Korea will make a breakthrough on other fronts. After all, while JPAC teams were gearing up to prepare their mission in the spring of 2012 after a seven-year hiatus, the U.S. suspended the plan just before it was set to begin, citing North Korean provocation.
But as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other State Department officials remain optimistic and determined to continue the process, and President Trump himself frequently tweets reminders of the success of negotiations so far, it is, at the very least, something to build upon.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of Defense
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