U.S., North Korea Discuss War Dead as Nuclear Dispute Simmers
(Bloomberg) -- U.S. and North Korean officials met Sunday to discuss the return of remains of American soldiers killed almost seven decades ago during the Korean War, with the talks offering a chance to ease tensions between the two sides as they argue over disarmament issues.
The meeting began around 10 a.m. Seoul time at the border village of Panmunjom, and it was unclear how long the talks would last, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified government and U.S. military officials.
The negotiations are the first working-level talks since Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month ended with North Korea denouncing the U.S.’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” The Sunday meeting was initially set for Thursday, but was rescheduled after the North Koreans failed to show.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from some 5,300 American military personnel who went missing during the three-year conflict that ended in 1953. Their recovery has long been among the most emotionally charged issues between the two sides. Caskets that the U.S. shipped to the border last month haven’t been filled, despite Kim Jong Un’s pledge during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump to immediately repatriate identified remains.
While recovering the war dead would provide Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three living American detainees, it would do little to advance the goal of dismantling the regime’s weapons program. The U.S. also risks giving the North Koreans leverage to continue diplomacy and drag out disarmament talks.
“They might eventually return them as a sop to the diplomatic process, but it’s an easy concession to make and it doesn’t really contribute toward denuclearization in any way,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “The question is how long Trump will play along with this before it becomes clear that diplomacy is going nowhere.”
The agreement to meet on the militarized North-South border about American war dead was perhaps the most tangible outcome from Pompeo’s trip, which ended with North Korea criticizing the secretary of state’s lack of emphasis on security guarantees as “regretful.” Pompeo called the talks “productive.”
The divergence in public comments fueled further doubts about whether Trump will ever achieve his goal of “complete denuclearization,” much less on the timeline of one to 2-1/2 years set out by various administration officials.
Nevertheless, Trump on Thursday praised Kim, saying that “great progress” was being made in negotiations. In a Twitter post, Trump attached copies of a July 6 letter from Kim lauding the U.S. leader’s “energetic and extraordinary efforts” and expressing “invariable trust and confidence” in his ability to advance talks. The letter’s date suggested it was written before Pompeo’s latest visit.
“It’s a process,” Trump said Friday during a news conference with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. “It’s probably a longer process than anybody would like, but I’m used to long processes, too.”
After the North Koreans failed to show up Thursday for the talks on war remains, which are being led by military officials, Yonhap News reported that the North Koreans had called United Nations Command via a hotline that hasn’t been used for five years and said they were unprepared to take part. The country proposed holding a higher-level meeting than the working-level talks originally announced by Pompeo, Yonhap said, citing a diplomatic official it didn’t identify.
Trump has expressed an eagerness to tout the war dead’s recovery, telling Fox News that Kim was “giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers” and then, to supporters in Nevada, that North Korea had already handed over 200 sets of remains. Pompeo was obliged to correct those claims, telling a U.S. Senate committee June 27 that no exchanges have been made.
Efforts to recover the missing war dead date back to before the two sides formally stopped fighting. Joint efforts to find and identify U.S. personnel between 1990 and 2005 recovered more than 300 sets of remains and were suspended as nuclear talks between the two sides deteriorated. North Korea last repatriated the remains of six individuals in 2007.
Obama administration attempts to restart discussions foundered as Kim accelerated his nuclear program. In 2014, the state-run Korean Central News Agency published a statement blaming the U.S.’s “hostile policy” for ending the recovery missions and warning that the bodies of American soldiers were being “carried away en-masse” to make way for infrastructure improvements.
“Meeting to discuss the recovery and retrieval of remains is so crucial because it’s low hanging fruit,” said Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to reunite families end bring a formal end to the Korean War, which finished a cease-fire agreement, but no peace treaty. “Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a longer process that yields a peace agreement that ends the Korean War and rids the peninsula of nuclear weapons.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.