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North, U.S. to start search for soldiers’ bodies

Remains of about 5,300 service members are still in the country
July 17,2018
The United States and North Korea agreed to restart field operations to search for the remains of an estimated 5,300 American soldiers missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday after general-level talks between the two countries.

In a statement, Pompeo called the first talks between American and North Korean generals in nine years “productive and cooperative” and said they resulted in “firm commitments.”

The dialogue at the border village of Panmunjom was a follow-up to the landmark summit in June between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, where they signed a joint statement committing to the recovery and repatriation of American prisoners of war and those missing in action.

Pompeo said the two sides discussed “the return of U.S. service members’ remains missing since the Korean War” and that the meeting was “aimed at fulfilling one of the commitments made by Chairman Kim at the Singapore Summit.”

Working-level meetings between American and North Korean officials would begin on Monday, Pompeo said, “to coordinate the next steps, including the transfer of remains already collected” in North Korea.

The generals’ meeting came after initial lower-level talks scheduled for Thursday were canceled because North Korean officials failed to show. Those talks were arranged by Pompeo during his third visit to Pyongyang on July 6 and 7.

The United States and North Korea are also working on repatriating the remains of about 200 American service members already found, a U.S. official told CNN on Sunday, though this could be “subject to change without notification.” The transfer may happen in the next 14 to 21 days, the source said.

There are about 7,700 U.S. service members unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Some 5,300 are believed to be in North Korea, according to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which tracks the remains of fallen American soldiers overseas, with the highest concentration believed to be in the Chosin Reservoir area, the site of a major battle in late 1950.

From 1990 to 1994, North Korea returned 208 caskets of U.S. soldiers’ remains, and from 1996 to 2005, North Korea allowed U.S. military personnel to conduct joint field searches of more remains. The project ended as North Korea was building up its nuclear weapons program.

The joint project resulted in 229 caskets being sent to the United States. North Korea last returned the remains of what are believed to be six people in 2007.

Analysts believe that repatriation of U.S. soldiers’ remains could bring needed momentum to deadlocked denuclearization talks.

On June 23, the U.S. Forces Korea and United Nations Command transferred about 100 wooden caskets to the Joint Security Area to prepare for the retrieval of American soldiers’ remains. Another 158 metal caskets were transferred to Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which handles relations with the North, applauded the “productive discussions” between North Korean and U.S. generals on the repatriation of remains.

“We look forward to successful discussions between the North and the United States through the working-level talks set for today,” Baik Tae-hyun, the ministry spokesman, said in a regular news briefing on Monday.

Despite concern among some analysts about the standstill in denuclearization talks, President Trump has been upbeat about the current progress. He called the North-U.S. talks successful in a Twitter post on Sunday before flying to Helsinki, Finland, to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the final stop of his weeklong trip to Europe.

“There hasn’t been a missile or rocket fired in 9 months in North Korea,” he wrote, “there have been no nuclear tests and we got back our hostages. Who knows how it will all turn out in the end.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]