The Korea Herald


US, N. Korea hold working-level talks on return of war remains

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : July 16, 2018 - 19:11

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The US and North Korea held working-level talks on Monday at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss details of the return of the remains of US soldiers killed during the Korean War, which experts say could help propel follow-up negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization.

The US and North Korea agreed to resume field operations to search for the war remains at a general-level meeting on Sunday, which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said was “productive and cooperative and resulted in firm commitments” in a statement.

The two sides on Monday continued discussions on when and how North Korea will transfer the remains of the US soldiers already collected in North Korea. While the details have not been disclosed, they are reported to be looking into holding a ceremony to mark the return of some of the identified remains on July 27, the 65th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in a truce. 

(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

The US and North Korea are working to transfer the remains of what could be 200 American service members in the 14 to 21 days subject to change without notification, CNN reported, citing an unidentified US official.

“Working level meetings between US and North Korean officials will begin on Monday, July 16, to coordinate the next steps, including the transfer of remains already collected in the DPRK,” Pompeo said in a statement, referring to North Korea by its official name -- the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Additionally, both sides agreed to re-commence field operations in the DPRK to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who never returned home.”

Recovering and repatriating the remains of American troops killed during the Korean War is one of the agreements reached at the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. A statement signed by both leaders promised the “immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

The US Department of Defense estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from some 5,300 American military personnel believed to be missing there. The US sent 100 wooden coffins to Panmunjom to receive the remains.

The ongoing engagement between the US and North Korea on the repatriation of the war remains is likely to boost the prospect of follow-up negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization as the two countries have not yet demonstrated a visible progress.

Sunday’s meeting marked the first meeting between American and North Korean generals since 2009. The meeting was initially planned for Thursday, but the North failed to show up, according to the US State Department. North Korean officials are reported to have cited “a lack of preparations” as the reason for skipping Thursday’s meeting, and instead proposed holding a general-level meeting with the US on Sunday.

North Korea might have called for a general-level meeting with the US at Panmunjom to advance talks on declaring an end to the Korean War and changing a cease-fire between the Koreas into a peace treaty, an expert said.

“The ongoing talks between the US and North Korea may not be a breakthrough in follow-up negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization, but it could help keep the momentum of dialogue between the countries,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.

Park, however, also raised concerns over the possibility of the North linking the repatriation of the war remains to its denuclearization, which he said could result in a protracted denuclearization process.

“North Korea would see it as the beginning of the phased approach for denuclearization negotiations,” he said. “There is a possibility that North Korea would demand rewards such as declaring an end to the Korean War and ending the cease-fire in return for repatriating the US war remains.”

Following Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, North Korea demanded the US, one of the signatories to the armistice that left the Koreas technically at war, agree to declare an end to the Korean War, which it sees as one of the measures to guarantee regime security. It also stressed the need for “a step-by-step approach” and “simultaneous actions” by the US in achieving the goal of denuclearization.

The US has maintained that Pyongyang should take concrete steps to denuclearize first before any of the rewards such as ending the war are granted, rejecting the step-by-step approach that the North Korea wants.

Pompeo was in Pyongyang to flesh out details of the agreement reached at the Singapore summit in which North Korea committed to complete denuclearization and the US promised to provide a security guarantee to the North.

Pompeo himself said his meeting with North Korean officials was “productive,” but soon after he left Pyongyang, North Korea denounced the US’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”

Trump continues to hail the US-North Korea talks.

“There hasn’t been a missile or rocket fired in 9 months in North Korea, there have been no nuclear tests and we got back our hostages,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Who knows how it will all turn out in the end, but why isn’t the Fake News talking about these wonderful facts?”