WASHINGTON — U.S. officials held high-level military talks with North Korean representatives on Sunday for the first time in nine years, a move that veterans advocates hope will be a breakthrough in efforts to recover the remains of thousands of fallen American troops.
In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the meeting between general officers from the two countries was “productive and cooperative” and also “resulted in firm commitments” from the North Korean contingent.
As a result, additional meetings were scheduled to take place on Monday, with the goal of coordinating the next steps in transferring the remains of the fallen U.S. troops.
Pompeo said both sides also agreed to restart field operations to search for additional U.S. troop remains, a move which could eventually bring American military forensics teams into the country.
The resumption of recovery and return efforts was a key talking point of last month’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Numerous veterans groups had lobbied the White House to emphasize the importance of the work in advance of the meeting, and praised plans to eventually bring home the fallen troops.
More than 35,000 Americans died on the Korean Peninsula during the war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. Of those, 7,700 are still listed as missing in action, with 5,300 believed to be on North Korean soli.
From 1990 to 2005, 229 fallen service members were identified and returned back to America with the help of North Korean military staff. But that work was suspended 13 years ago amid deteriorating political relations between the countries.
Pentagon officials have said they believe North Korean officials currently have about 200 sets of U.S. remains that can be quickly transferred back to America once political and logistical issues are settled.
But settling those issues has been problematic. In recent weeks, Trump has promised that work will begin soon, and indicated several times that fallen troops were already headed back home. Pentagon officials have said no remains have yet been transferred.
Last week, North Korean representatives skipped a scheduled meeting with U.S. officials to discuss the work, requesting instead a military-to-military meeting to start the process. Sunday’s meeting appears to have gotten the process back on track.
U.S. military officials have been preparing for bringing the fallen troops’ remains back to America for the last month, prepositioning about 100 wooden transport cases in South Korea.
Pompeo’s statement did not offer a timeline for when the first returns may take place.