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U.S. denies paying North for G.I. remains

Countries typically reimburse costs of recovery and storage
July 31,2018
The U.S. State Department on Sunday denied paying North Korea for the repatriation of remains of American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last Friday, North Korea returned 55 cases containing the remains of fallen Americans to the U.S. military. The move, conducted on the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended fighting in the war, fulfilled one of the pledges from the joint statement that U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed at their historic summit in Singapore last month.

There was speculation that the United States might have paid for the repatriation of remains. The United States normally reimburses the costs of recovering and storing the remains of fallen soldiers overseas.

However, the U.S. State Department clarified that this was not the case. “U.S. code grants the secretary of defense the authority to reimburse [North Korea], or any other country, for expenses associated with the recovery and storage of remains,” Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “In this instance, North Korea did not ask for money and no money was exchanged.”

She added that Kim was “fulfilling part of the commitment” he made to Trump and called the repatriation “a tangible step toward the realization” of the two leaders’ agreement from the summit.

A U.S. Air Force plane carried the remains from Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast to Osan Air Base in the South last Friday. There, initial identification of the remains is taking place.

A honors ceremony led by Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea and United Nations Command, is scheduled to take place at the base on Wednesday.

The remains will then be transported to Hawaii for further identification and forensic analysis at a military lab there.

Methods of identification include examining dog tags and scraps of clothes, matching teeth to dental records and measuring bones to estimate height. Analysts can also compare the shape of a clavicle bone, considered as unique as fingerprints, with old records of X-rays that were taken to check for tuberculosis. Bone and teeth samples could be sent to a military lab at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware if further DNA analysis is needed.

Timothy McMahon, who oversees the Dover lab as director of the Defense Department’s DNA operations, told Fox News on Sunday that the military has been collecting DNA from family members of fallen soldiers since 1992 and reached the relatives of 92 percent of some 8,100 service members who were listed as missing at the end of the war.

This was the North’s first repatriation of American soldiers’ remains since 2007. President Trump on Friday thanked Kim for the handover and for “keeping his word.”

While the remains’ return can be seen as a confidence-building measure between North Korea and the United States, some hard-line lawmakers in Congress said it was not enough of a gesture and even warned that a military option is still on the table.

“Having the remains returned to the United States is much appreciated by the families in the country as a whole,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, told Fox News on Sunday. “But we’re looking for complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization,” also known as CVID.

Graham expressed concerns that the North, emboldened by China, might be using delay tactics to postpone its denuclearization.

“I fear that North Korea and China are trying to run the clock out,” Graham said. “China has pulled North Korea back because we’re in a trade dispute with China.” The senator has previously blamed China for the trade war with the United States.

“If I were President Trump, I’d keep the pressure on,” Graham said. “And the only way to get a deal that matters is to convince China and North Korea we use the military option to stop their nuclear program if we have to.”

Trump has mostly refrained from his rhetoric of military action against Pyongyang since the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, after Seoul and Washington declared a temporary suspension of joint military exercises the previous month that led to other acts of diplomacy and the first North-U.S. summit. In turn, North Korea has halted tests of nuclear weapons and missiles.

Graham said China was “undercutting” the United States when it came to North Korea, but he also noted that Pyongyang believes Trump “will not allow them to develop the capability to hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon.”

He said the timeline on denuclearization was “slipping” and emphasized that the “only way” to get to CVID was “to put a deadline” on it, noting that Trump “said he wanted this to happen in his first term.”

In contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for “patient diplomacy” with the North, though he told senators last week that the administration is still aiming for CVID by the end of Trump’s first term as president in 2021.

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