N. Korea skips meeting on repatriating the remains of American war dead
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 12, 2018
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean officials skipped planned talks on repatriating the remains of American war dead Thursday in the latest snub of a U.S. administration eager to show progress on efforts to rid the communist state of nuclear weapons.
The no-show fuels growing skepticism over the North’s commitment to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula as promised during the June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the talks would be held in the truce village of Panmunjom after his fraught visit to North Korea last week, although he added the caveat that “it could move by one day or two.”
Officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency traveled to the U.N.-controlled area in the heavily fortified border for the meeting but the North Koreans never showed up, according to official sources.
South Korean media also reported that the North Koreans didn’t show up, citing government officials.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said later that the North had agreed to meet with an American delegation on Sunday instead. "We will be ready," she said.
More details were not immediately available. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul said it had no immediate information.
American officials have been on standby for weeks and have sent wooden coffins and flags to Panmunjom in preparation for a handover.
The agreement on the return of remains of Americans believed to have been lost on the North Korean side of the border during the 1950-53 war, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” was the only concrete commitment on the four-point summit declaration.
The other points included a general commitment to the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula, joint efforts to build “a lasting and stable peace regime,” and improved bilateral relations.
Trump also announced that the U.S. would suspend “war games” with South Korea.
Pompeo traveled to the North last week to try to iron out the details amid criticism that the U.S. administration had already given up too much, too soon and was being played.
He left with only an agreement to set up working groups to discuss aspects of the deal, including the planned meeting on returning the remains.
It would be the first such repatriation in more than a decade after a joint search effort was halted amid rising tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Pompeo underscored the importance he places on the issue earlier this week when he tweeted that North Korea had committed to repatriating remains.
“This step will build trust & confidence btw US & DPRK,” he tweeted on Monday, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the three-year war, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders.
That number includes 7,702 who are missing in action, with an estimated 5,300 believed to have been lost in the North, according to the Hawaii-based DPAA, which oversees the effort.
The agency also says that North Korean officials have indicated they have “as many as 200 sets of remains” already recovered that could be ready for return. Identities would not be confirmed until after what is often a lengthy and complicated forensics process.
Joint U.S.-North Korean military search teams recovered 229 sets of American remains from North Korea between 1996 and 2005.
The United States was allowed to conduct 33 investigative and recovery operations in the country before former President George W. Bush’s administration called off the search, claiming the safety of American participants was not guaranteed.
Critics at the time also argued the North was using the program to extort money from Washington, prompting the label “bones for bucks.”
The last repatriation was in 2007 when then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Pyongyang and returned with six sets of remains.
Pompeo’s reception in Pyongyang last week was chillier than during his previous two trips to the North Korean capital and he didn’t meet with Kim Jong Un. On the day he left the North issued a statement on state-run media accusing the United States of “gangster-like” demands for unilateral disarmament.
U.S. officials and experts have said the shift in attitude was to be expected as the North Koreans are known for brinkmanship and trying to up the ante ahead of tough negotiations over their nuclear missile program.
The Trump administration has insisted that progress is being made.
North Korea has imposed a testing moratorium, with the last missile test occurring on Nov. 28, and it destroyed its main nuclear testing facility, although experts say those moves could be reversed.
“President Trump still believes that the agreement that was reached in Singapore where North Korea agreed to complete denuclearization represents a commitment that we can make progress on,” Vice President Mike Pence told “Fox News” Tuesday in an interview. “We’re going to continue to work through that,” the vice president said. “We’re not going to be sidelined or sidetracked.”