Recovery of U.S. troops’ remains in North Korea hindered by cash, politics

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed in June to help return the remains of American troops killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, it was seen as one of the more attainable goals to come out of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

American officials expect North Korea to hand over around 50 sets of remains in coming weeks, but the drawn-out process of negotiations to get to this point highlights the complications involved in the issue.

At the heart of the difficulty, former officials involved in previous recovery missions say, are likely demands from North Korea for cash compensation, as well as the unsolved tensions over North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal.

More than 7,700 U.S. troops who fought in the Korean War remain unaccounted for, with about 5,300 of those lost in what is now North Korea, according to the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the U.S. military agency tasked with tracking down prisoners of war and troops missing in action.

The Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the United States and North Korea still technically at war.

Soon after the June summit, Trump announced North Korea had returned the remains of 200 soldiers that had already been found. However, negotiations over the actual handing over of the remains have dragged on.

“The North Koreans are using the remains issue as a bargaining chip,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. diplomat with experience negotiating with North Korea, including during the recovery of the remains of seven Americans in 2007.

“They’re stalling,” he told Reuters in an interview by phone. “I think in the end the North Koreans will turn over the majority of the remains that they have – but it will have a price. Not just a financial price.”


Between the 1990 and 2005, more than 400 caskets of remains found in North Korea were returned to the United States, and the bodies of some 330 Americans were accounted for, according to the DPAA.

Decades-old remains that North Korea has handed over in the past have not always been identifiable as U.S. troops.

The U.S. and North Korea worked together on so-called joint field activities (JFAs) to recover remains from 1996-2005 until Washington halted operations expressing concerns about the safety of its personnel.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report said the United States paid $28 million to North Korea for assistance in the effort.

“To the best of my knowledge, it was never based on a per body calculation. Payments were made in support of each field mission – each joint recovery operation,” said Frank Jannuzi, a former Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer focusing on East Asian and Pacific affairs. Payments were to compensate North Korea for direct expenses incurred such as fuel costs, disruption of agricultural planting, or equipment costs, he said.

In 2011, Barack Obama’s administration agreed with Pyongyang to restart recovery missions, offering to pay $5,669,160 in “compensation” for services provided by North Korea.

Those planned missions never happened, however, as Washington called off the deal after North Korea tested a rocket in early 2012, said Paul M. Cole, author of ‘POW/MIA Accounting’.

“If the past is any indicator, the (North Koreans) are demanding up-front deliveries of food, fuel and at least $5 million in cash,” Cole told Reuters. “In the era of ‘maximum pressure,’ the dilemma for the Trump administration is whether to give the (North Koreans) massive amounts of food, fuel, trucks, SUVs and millions in cash, or cancel the deal.”

Former officials say typically North Korea has not asked for compensation when it unilaterally returns remains it recovers, such as the roughly 200 currently being discussed.

But if the United States hopes to send its own teams into North Korea, there will likely be a cost.

Asked whether the cost of future joint field activities would be similar to what was paid in the past, the Pentagon’s DPAA Public Affairs Office said: “As of yet, there are no JFAs scheduled in North Korea so we cannot speculate on what such activities may cost.”

The U.S. State Department did not have an immediate comment on the negotiations, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on June North Korea had made a commitment to unilateral return the first remains “in the next couple weeks”.

According to CRS, the United States also paid for recovery operations in Vietnam. As with North Korea, critics complained the Vietnamese government charged “extraordinarily high fees for providing support… and that the services received are by no means as lavish as the bills presented indicate”.

South Korea’s former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-han said Pyongyang would likely want to use the return of remains to improve its relations with Washington while avoiding addressing more touchy subjects such as denuclearization.

“North Korea wants the war declared ended sooner rather than later so trust can be built and progress on its international standing can be made,” he said, adding that any “reimbursements” were likely to violate sanctions.

Besides being politically sensitive, however, handing the North Korean government stacks of cash offers no guarantee that authenticated U.S. servicemen’s remains would be recovered, Jannuzi said.

“We might spend a million dollars and come up with nothing.”

(Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Hunt for U.S. Korean War dead will take months to resume, search chief says

U.S. Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency Kelly McKeague, whose agency tracks down and repatriates remains of U.S. soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, July 9, 2018. Picture taken on July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – North Korea may allow the United States to resume a search for thousands of American war dead from the 1950-53 Korean War, but it will be months before excavations can begin and years until bone fragments are identified, a senior US official said.

“It takes anywhere from a few months to, in many cases, years, before we can make an identification,” Kelly McKeague, head of the U.S. agency that tracks down remains of U.S. soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, said in an interview.

Thirteen years after its last work in North Korea, the agency could return after leader Kim Jong Un agreed at a June 12 summit with President Donald Trump to resume the recovery and repatriation of U.S. remains.

After the summit, Trump said Pyongyang had already “sent back” the remains of 200 U.S. troops. McKeague said no new remains had been returned since the Trump-Kim talks.

“We have yet to see any specifics from that commitment,” said McKeague, director of the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The process could get a kickstart when North Korean and United Nations officials meet on Thursday in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the Koreas to discuss service members missing in action (MIA). DPAA advisers will attend the talks.

“We are hopeful these discussions on July 12 will lead to further discussions and negotiations directly with the North Koreans by which we can actually get down to the detailed planning,” McKeague said.

DPAA investigators face a narrow weather window in North Korea, where the ground is soft enough for digging from mid-March to late September, and rains can stop work in June and August.

The last return of U.S. remains between 1990 and 1995 involved just over 200 caskets. U.S. investigators collected a further 230 boxes of bones and material in a decade of digging.

Using DNA testing, they have identified 630 individuals, of which 330 were matched to missing service members, said Dr. John Byrd, the agency’s director of scientific analysis.

Each person receives a military funeral with full honors.


Byrd, a forensic anthropologist, was part of a 15-strong DPAA team in North Korea 20 years ago. They lived in tents and traveled to battle sites such as the Chosin Reservoir, where outnumbered U.S. Marine and Army units fought a retreat through overwhelming numbers of Chinese forces in a bitter winter.

Guarded by North Korean soldiers, Byrd said they were careful to avoid arguments that could halt their work.

“We made sure we only brought in really mature experienced people,” he said, adding each day was “going to be negotiated”.

The remains of a South Korean service member identified from that operation will be returned in Seoul on Friday. About 120,000 South Koreans are still missing, according to the DPAA.

Some 7,700 Americans are unaccounted for on the peninsula, with 5,300 believed to be somewhere north of the DMZ.

Detailed historical records allow investigators to locate battlefields, prisoner of war camps and aircraft crash sites.

The Korean peninsula’s colder climate limits digging time, but helps to preserve remains, unlike tropical areas of Asia, where bones rot quickly, McKeague said.

The agency has built up a DNA database from relatives that covers 92 percent of the Korean War missing, versus 85 percent for the Vietnam War and about 5 percent for World War Two.

The North’s lack of economic development since the war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meant it built fewer roads, dams and buildings to disturb or cover remains.

South Korea’s urbanization is one reason why more than a 1,000 U.S. service members are unaccounted for, said McKeague.

If the agency does return to North Korea, he said cooperation will be key. “The most difficult thing in working with the North Koreans was the trust,” he said.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Darren Schuettler)