WASHINGTON — Months after the White House raised hopes for bringing home thousands of U.S. battlefield remains from North Korea, the returns have stalled. Detailed negotiations on future recovery arrangements have not even begun.
The slower pace appears linked to the more talked-about stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
At a June meeting with President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to “work toward” the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to cooperate in recovering U.S. war remains. Neither issue is said to be explicitly dependent on the other, and in August, the North turned over 55 boxes of remains, with expectations of more to come soon. But progress then slowed, as has the nuclear diplomacy.
Trump has said he likely will have a second summit with Kim in January or February, and while the nuclear issue would be the central focus, some believe a second meeting is the best chance to restore momentum to the remains recovery effort.
"It is easy to wonder if that isn't what everyone is waiting on to happen," said Richard Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean War and Cold War POW/MIAs, which advocates for a full accounting of the missing.
The remains of thousands of U.S. service members were left behind in North Korea when the war ended in 1953, with the North and South separated by a demilitarized zone and no formal end to the conflict. Joint U.S.-North Korean recovery operations started in 1996 and were halted in 2005 amid rising worries about the North's nuclear ambitions. More than 150 individuals have been identified from the remains that were jointly excavated and returned through 2005; those are separate from the remains in the 55 boxes, which had been stored by the North, probably for decades.
Of the remains repatriated in August in the 55 boxes, two have been positively identified. They are Army Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel, of Butler, Missouri, and Vernon, Indiana, and Army Pfc. William H. Jones, of Nash County, North Carolina.
Charles H. McDaniel Jr., who was 3 years old when his father went missing in November 1950, says the unexpected return of his father’s remains has given him a new perspective on life. After having buried the remains in late October in Greenwood, Indiana, McDaniel says he sometimes finds himself gazing alternately at a photo of his 4-year-old granddaughter and a picture of his father in uniform — a reminder that family connections live on.
"I almost feel he's looking at me," McDaniel said in a telephone interview.
McDaniel describes himself as hopeful that more remains will be sent home from North Korea, but he is not optimistic.
"The bigger issue for the world is the missiles and the bombs," he said, referring to concern that a nuclear-armed North Korea will pose an unacceptable threat to the world. "When it's to their benefit they will let loose with something like the 55 boxes (of U.S. remains) to make them look good," without resolving the nuclear issue.
Kelly McKeague, head of the Pentagon agency responsible for worldwide efforts to account for U.S. service members, said in September that he hoped to begin face-to-face negotiations with North Korea by the end of October on terms for resuming recovery missions in spring 2019.
McKeague's agency has detailed knowledge of locations of U.S. remains at former POW camps and elsewhere in North Korea, as well as sites around the country where U.S. airmen went down and were not recovered. But to travel to these locations and undertake excavations, the U.S. needs North Korea's cooperation. In the past, this has meant providing millions of dollars' worth of vehicles and fuel and other forms of support.
A McKeague spokesman, Charles Prichard, said Wednesday that no formal negotiations have begun. He said McKeague believes that "in the foreseeable future" North Korean Army officers and members of his agency will meet to determine the location and date for negotiations on "the finer details" of future recovery operations. An initial North Korean written proposal last summer was rejected by the U.S. as including unreasonable demands.
"At this time, it is still feasible that joint recovery missions could be planned and executed in the spring of 2019," Prichard said. He said the two sides have exchanged letters and documents, but he could not reveal details.
Last summer, Vice President Mike Pence publicly raised hopes for a complete accounting of Korean War remains in the North. Speaking in Hawaii, where he greeted the aircraft that delivered the 55 boxes from North Korea on Aug. 1, Pence spoke of a "new season of hope" for the families of servicemen missing from the 1950-53 war.
Pence asserted that Trump had secured from Kim a promise "to return the remains of all fallen U.S. service members lost in North Korea," although Pentagon officials so far have made limited progress in that direction. Of the nearly 7,700 service members listed as missing from the war, about 5,300 are believed to be in North Korea.
Some worry that the Pentagon's inability thus far to get the North Koreans to the negotiating table may be connected to recently tightened U.S. restrictions on American private aid workers traveling to North Korea.
Daniel Jasper, who has worked in North Korea for the American Friends Service Committee, which works with farmers in North Korea to improve food production, said in an email exchange this week that the limitations have confused the North Koreans. He said the State Department has cut back on exemptions to a U.S. ban on travel to North Korea. This has limited U.S.-based aid groups' work there and inhibited the flow of humanitarian help.
“The restrictions on humanitarian activities have, no doubt, sent mixed signals to the North Koreans,” Jasper said. “We are worried these restrictions may have ripple effects in other areas of relations, including the repatriation operations.”