President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recommitted to recovering and immediately repatriating the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers declared missing in action during the Korean War as part of a denuclearization agreement signed in Singapore on Tuesday.
Details of the recovery and repatriation project have yet to be announced by the Department of Defense, but the agency estimates that there are 7,697 American personnel who are unaccounted for in that war.
The US has previously engaged in efforts to identify and retrieve American POW/MIA remains in North Korea. According to the National Committee on North Korea, US military personnel engaged in missions to retrieve remains in North Korea from 1993 through 2005. The missions were suspended because of safety concerns, military officials said. During a 2007 visit by then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the remains of six US military personnel were repatriated.
US efforts to recover remains were halted during the George W. Bush administration and failed to restart during the Leap Day talks of the Obama administration.
North Koreans continued to collect remains on their own, but were asked to stop because the US considered their methods of collection, which included the co-mingling of remains, as unscientific.
J. Alan Liotta, a former Defense Department official who led talks with North Korea to initiate the joint recovery process of US remains in North Korea in 1996, told CNN he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the new agreement as long as it is not done unilaterally by the North Koreans.
“As long as this puts us back on track to a way that we can do it with our scientific experts involved so we can get identifications, then it will be very significant,” Liotta said. “If it is simply about getting the North Koreans to return a large number of remains to us, while that’s helpful, it’s not going to lead to many identifications. It’s going to complicate things more than it’s going to help things.”
Ann Mills-Griffiths, the chairman and CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families, told CNN her organization was pleased to see the section included in the agreement. She said her organization has “advocated quietly through channels” for this action for several years.
The identification and repatriation effort is “serving a useful role, as well as demonstrating what people are looking for in terms of humanitarian reciprocity, measurable steps, eases and ends the uncertainty for the families whose loved ones remains are returned and identified,” she said.
Because the return of these American personnel is considered a humanitarian issue, Mills-Griffiths said she suspects that it is less likely to encounter obstacles than the agreement to denuclearization.
“This is an internationally understood obligation of civilized nations, that you do your best to account for your former enemies,” Mills-Griffiths added.
There were more than 36,000 American casualties during the Korean War and though hostilities ceased some 65 years ago, the war was never formally ended.
In April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim pledged to formally end the war. Because of the involvement of the United Nations and countries such as the United States and China in the war, these nations will need to be signatories on an official peace treaty.
The Department of Defense has identified several major concentrations of remains in North Korea at POW camp burial sites across the country.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which handles the identification and return of missing US military personnel, could not be reached for comment.