UN Command planning for N. Koreans to turn over remains of US war dead

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 19, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea – The U.N. Command in South Korea is planning for the North Koreans to turn over the remains of U.S. troops who died in the 1950-53 war, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

It would be the first such repatriation in more than a decade.

The announcement follows an agreement by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their summit last week to recover the remains of thousands of war dead, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

The U.S.-led command didn’t give a number or timing for the ceremony. The agency that oversees POW/MIA issues has said North Korean officials have indicated that they have recovered as many as 200 sets of remains over the years.

“United Nations Command Korea is planning for the repatriation of the remains of U.S. servicemembers previously recovered by [North Korea],” the spokeswoman, Air Force Lt. Col. Jennifer Lovett, said in an email.

“We owe a profound debt of gratitude to U.S. service members who gave their lives in service to their country and we are working diligently to bring them home,” she added. “This is an evolving situation and we will provide additional information when available.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in also said he expected the remains to be returned soon.

“I think probably the North Korean repatriation of the U.S. soldiers will be done in the near future,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

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 Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Recovery efforts have been subject to rising tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

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.

Trump said during a news conference after the summit that he had received “countless calls and letters” from family members asking for help obtaining remains. He brought up the issue with Kim at the "very last minute," he said.

“Even during the campaign, they’d say, ‘Is there any way you can work with North Korea to get the remains of my son back or my father back?’ So many people asked me this question,” Trump said. “And, you know, I said, ‘Look, we don’t get along too well with that particular group of people.’ But now we do. And he agreed to that so quickly and so nice – it was really a very nice thing.”

The two sides “commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” read the document, which was displayed by Trump at the ceremony.

Once they are returned, the remains will have to be identified to determine if they are Americans or allied servicemembers.

Moon said earlier this month that he hoped to use the burgeoning goodwill with the North to send teams to retrieve remains from the Demilitarized Zone and other areas. South Korea still has more than 120,000 troops that are unaccounted for.

Stars and Stripes correspondent Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

Twitter: @kimgamel

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