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U.S. negotiates with North on remains

June 27,2018
Six American officials are currently in Pyongyang to discuss the repatriation of U.S. service members’ remains from North Korea and an imminent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, local diplomatic sources exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Two specialists on human remains and four officials from the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency were dispatched to the North Korean capital last week for discussions with their North Korean counterparts, and are still there for talks, the local sources said Sunday on the condition of anonymity.

The officials are said to be closing in on an agreement to have Pompeo visit Pyongyang early this week. The secretary of state was initially expected to make his third visit to the North last week, after U.S. President Donald Trump raised the idea on June 12 following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

It appeared that the delay was due in part to discrepancies between Washington and Pyongyang on a timeline of the North’s denuclearization, as well as the rewards North Korea would receive if and when it follows through, the South Korean sources said.

But in an interview with CNN on Sunday, Pompeo said that the Trump White House won’t put a timeline on negotiations with North Korea about its denuclearization, contradicting his own remarks from the past that he’d like to see the regime fully give up its nuclear weapons before Trump’s first term, which ends on Jan. 20, 2021.

“I am not going to put a timeline on it,” said Pompeo, “whether that’s two months, six months, we are committed to moving forward in an expeditious moment to see if we can achieve what both leaders set out to do.”

Pompeo continued that the administration would instead “constantly reassess” whether enough progress is being made with the North to continue talks. His refusal to put a timeline of North Korea’s denuclearization also seemed to contradict remarks by a senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters ahead of a trip by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Asia this week.

“I think the way we are going to approach North Korea is we are going to have some data points pretty soon if they are operating in good faith or not,” the official said, according to CNN.

“There will be specific asks and there will be a specific timeline when we do present the North Koreans with our concept of what implementation of the summit agreement looks like.”

Dana White, chief spokesperson for the Pentagon, backpedaled on those statements in a set of tweets shortly afterwards, saying the Defense Department was committed to supporting the ongoing diplomatic process with the North, “of which there is no specific timeline.”

On the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War that Pyongyang is about to hand over, Mattis said Sunday that the United Nations Command in South Korea was “prepared…to receive those remains,” adding that the United States was simply on standby for whenever the “diplomatic activities” were done.

Mattis, who’s scheduled to touch down in South Korea this Thursday for a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo, said the remains will be turned over to the United States at the inter-Korean border and subsequently moved to the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, about 40 miles south of Seoul.

There, they will be checked “to make sure that they appear to be what they think,” said Mattis, to be sure they’re the remains of soldiers from the United States, not some other country who sent troops to the peninsula during the 1950-53 Korean War. That initial identification process will likely take a couple of days, maybe a week, the defense chief said.

From Osan, the remains will be sent to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where a forensic identification lab is located, to try to make matches on them.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]