N. Korea may return up to 55 sets of US war dead remains next week, official says

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has agreed to hand over as many as 55 sets of remains believed to be from American troops killed in the 1950-53 war, and to allow the United States to fly them out of the country next week, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

The preliminary details emerged after U.S. and North Korean officials held working-level talks Monday in the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

The Americans planned to send transit cases via truck to the DMZ, where they would be given to the North Koreans to use for the remains. “They’re going to use our cases for the remains and give them back to us,” the official told Stars and Stripes.

A U.S. delegation was expected to retrieve the remains in North Korea and fly them out on July 27, either to Osan Air Base in South Korea or Hawaii, the official said, adding that the date may change as the two sides planned to iron out final details during another meeting in the near future.

The date would be symbolic as it marks the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the war instead of a peace treaty.

The North Koreans informed the U.S. delegates that they’ll return 50 to 55 sets of remains of U.S. servicemembers, the official said. It would be the first repatriation of remains since 2007 as search efforts stalled amid rising tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

The official said Monday’s meeting was focused on the return of remains and the North Koreans apparently did not raise other issues or request anything in return, despite speculation in South Korean media that they would try to tie the repatriation to other demands.

It’s unclear how the North Koreans could be certain of the nationalities, although they have in the past included dog tags. The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, which oversees the effort, has cautioned that the identification process is complicated and often takes years.

The Hawaii-based DPAA says it has family reference samples for more than 90 percent of the missing servicemembers. But past remains have been found to be mixed up with other unidentified individuals and in at least one case animal bones.

Thousands of Americans were believed to have been lost on the northern side of the heavily fortified border, which has divided the peninsula as the adversaries remain technically at war.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to recover remains, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” along with other commitments during his unprecedented summit with President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore.

The historic meeting was focused on efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons, and the agreement to return remains was seen as a goodwill gesture.

But the process has been slow, with the North Koreans keeping the U.S.-led United Nations Command on standby for weeks after the military sent dozens of temporary coffins to the DMZ in preparation.

The North also failed to show up at a July 12 meeting that had been announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly asking the Americans to send a general officer on Sunday for the first high-level military talks between the two sides in more than nine years.

Pompeo said Sunday that the talks, which were led by U.S. and North Korean two-star generals, were “productive and cooperative and resulted in firm commitments.” The sides also agreed to resume field operations to search for more remains in the North and to hold the working-level talks on Monday.

The State Department confirmed that talks resumed Monday in Panmunjom “to continue coordination on the transfer of remains already collected in (North Korea) and the re-commencing of field operations,” but declined to provide more details.

“We do not discuss the details of private diplomatic discussions,” a State Department official said in an email.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

The State Department has taken the lead on the negotiations, although the issue of war dead on the peninsula is usually handled by the U.N. command, which oversees the cease-fire.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month that the UNC would handle the return of the remains since 16 nations fought under the U.N. flag during the war.

More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the Korean War, according to the Pentagon. That figure includes some 7,700 still unaccounted for, with an estimated 5,300 believed to have been lost in the North.

The DPAA says that North Korean officials have indicated in the past that “as many as 200 sets of remains” are in custody and could be ready for return.

Twitter: @kimgamel