Families urge Trump to press N. Korea to return more remains of war dead
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 26, 2019
SEOUL, South Korea — Three families have closure after North Korea in July handed over 55 boxes containing bones said to belong to American troops killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
But thousands are still missing, including fighter pilots shot down over enemy territory and soldiers taken captive on the battlefield.
An agreement to recover the remains of servicemembers lost in North Korea was one of the most tangible outcomes from the first U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore in June.
“The United States and (North Korea) commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” the fourth point of the final declaration said.
Eight months later, the process has stalled after the high-profile repatriation of the 55 boxes of remains and one dog tag.
Advocates urged President Donald Trump to press North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in during their second meeting, in Hanoi this week, to return more sets and to allow U.S. search teams to enter the North to unearth others from former battlefields and prisoner of war camps.
“There has been no discussion of the mission by the leadership of either country leading up to the summit,” Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, said Tuesday.
“What appeared to be the beginning of a renewed commitment has apparently become less than an afterthought,” he added.
Downes, whose father, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes, went missing in North Korea in 1952, said his group also wants to arrange teams to find 600 crash sites involving 900 missing U.S. airmen in North Korea as well as remains believed buried in former U.N. cemeteries.
More than 30,000 Americans were killed in the three-year war, which left the peninsula divided because it ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, known as DPAA, says 7,765 remain unaccounted for, with some 5,300 lost behind enemy lines.
North Korean officials have indicated they possess as many as 200 sets of remains that have been recovered over the years, DPAA says, but a definitive number has never been confirmed.
Recovery efforts have been complicated over the years by tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump frequently cites the return of the 55 boxes of remains, along with the release of three American civilians who had been detained as signs of progress in his talks with the North.
“The remains are coming back,” he told reporters last week at the White House. “Their family members have found out exactly what’s going on, and they’ve had ceremonies that are absolutely beautiful.”
Trump said “so many people” lobbied him to get the remains back while he was campaigning for president. “So we’ve done that,” he said.
DPAA continues to communicate with North Korean officials “regarding the possible resumption of remains recovery missions in North Korea,” spokesman Lt. Col. Kenneth Hoffman said in an email.
He did not provide details but said the process was “professional.” The Hawaii-based agency had hoped to begin the searches this summer.
The issue has always been subject to the volatile relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.
The Americans carried out 33 joint recovery operations in North Korea between 1996 and 2005, but those were halted amid distrust and growing concern about the North’s nuclear program.
Critics at the time also argued the North was using the program to extort money from Washington, prompting the label “bones for bucks.”
Before July, the last repatriation had been in 2007, when then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Pyongyang and returned with six sets of remains.
The State Department has said no payment was made for the remains received in July.
Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan of Florida said he understands the need to prioritize efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
But Buchanan urged Trump to prioritize the issue of repatriating remains in his two-day summit with Kim, which begins Wednesday in Hanoi.
“The families of our fallen service members have already waited more than half a century for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned,” he wrote in a letter last week. “They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The identification process also is difficult and often takes years, although it was aided in July by the inclusion of a military ID tag belonging to Army Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel of Indiana.
Scientists later confirmed that Army Pfc. William H. Jones of North Carolina and Army Sgt. Frank Julius Suliman of New Jersey had been found.
South Korea also recovered 13 sets of remains, including one believed to be from an American, during mine-clearing operations in the heavily fortified border area earlier this year.
The search operation in the so-called Demilitarized Zone was expected to “begin in earnest in April,” according to Lt. Col. Choung Choi of the Defense Ministry’s recovery agency known as MAKRI.
The area was the site of fierce fighting involving mostly American, French and South Korean forces versus Chinese troops who were backing the North Koreans.
Some 120,000 South Korean forces remain missing in action.
“Sadly, many people gave their lives for their country,” Choi said in an interview at the MAKRI offices in the National Cemetery in Seoul. “They need an honorable return to the arms of their families.”
Joe Davis of the advocacy group Veterans of Foreign Wars points out that the recovery of remains has been a catalyst for peace efforts in the past.
“That humanitarian mission is what helped to normalize relations with Vietnam,” he said in an email.
The Missouri-based group expressed hope that more remains would be recovered.
“Returning our fallen to their families is a humanitarian mission that transcends politics,” Davis said.