An offer from North Korea’s government to turn over the decadesold remains of as many as 120 U.S. soldiers could provide a rare opportunity for cooperation between the two countries locked in a tense nuclear standoff.
But so far, the Trump administration — like the Obama and George W. Bush administrations before it — has declined to make an exception to the United States’ refusal to engage in military or diplomatic relations with the outlaw regime.
Families of U.S. soldiers who went missing during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 made a new appeal this week to President Donald Trump, seeking permission to retrieve the troops’ remains. They say there’s no reason to fear it would imply any weakened U.S. resolve in confronting Kim Jong Un’s government, which has refused to curtail its nuclear weapons development and is threatening to fire long-range missiles at Guam.
"Returning these long-missing American soldiers home will be a onetime event," said Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. He added, "There needn’t be any direct interaction between the U.S. and the DPRK," referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
Downes, who organized a letter to Trump on the issue in April, clutched a photo of himself as a small child on the shoulders of his father, Lt. Hal Downes, a radar operator who was lost in an Air Force bomber flight over North Korea in January 1952. Downes was in the D.C. area this week to take part in a Pentagon-hosted gathering of relatives of missing service members from the Korean War and other Cold War-era conflicts.
The North Korean government informed family representatives last fall that it had unearthed the soldiers’ remains from Korean War battlefields after years of flooding, farming and construction projects. It offered to return the remains for official identification if the U.S. acknowledges the humanitarian nature of the gesture.
Downes met in Pyongyang with North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs in September, along with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has served as an unofficial U.S. intermediary with the reclusive communist government. Under the proposal, North Korea requested a letter from the U.S. government permitting Richardson and his Center for Global Engagement to coordinate the transfer of the remains on humanitarian grounds.
But the State Department has not approved the request, and Downes said the head of the North Korea division at the State Department has informed him that permission is unlikely to be granted.
"The U.S. government sees this as a priority issue and would hope to raise it early with the DPRK if we get to a point of resuming dialogue, but it is incumbent on the DPRK to take the steps necessary to reopen dialogue," Katina Adams, a State Department spokeswoman told POLITICO.
“There is not a lot we can do for these families," said Johnie Webb, a deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency.
The agency, which is tasked with accounting for missing personnel from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, estimates that 7,740 U.S. military personnel are still missing from the Korean War. About 5,400 of them were lost in North Korea.
A limited number of U.S. military search and recovery teams used to operate in North Korea in the search for MIAs. But the operations were halted in 2005, when international negotiations to halt North Korea’s missile program collapsed and the Bush administration was concerned for the teams’ safety.
For the widows, sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces and nephews packed into a hotel ballroom near the Pentagon this week for updates on their missing loved ones’ cases, the stakes of the debate are deeply personal.
"We keep hoping this will get wrapped up," said Rosanne Sallee, 91, whose husband, Marine Lt. Karle Seydel, was lost in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950 and never recovered.
Sallee came to the gathering from Bellevue, Wash., with her daughter Ruth Herbert, who was a year old when her father went missing, to receive an update from the Pentagon on her husband’s case.
She learned from the Pentagon agency Friday that the remains of another Marine who disappeared near her husband were recently identified, giving her new hope that she, too, may finally get answers.
"The families of America’s missing servicemen put trust in their government’s pledge to leave no man behind," the families’ coalition wrote in its recent letter to Trump. "Mr. President, you hold the key to validating that faith. We, the families, along with supportive groups throughout the nation, ask that you keep the nation’s promise to its military personnel and, in this instance,to the families of possibly 120 missing men, who have spent a lifetime waiting for answers to their loved one’s fate."
Others who have been intimately involved with the North Korea issue say Pyongyang’s overture could also present broader opportunities.
"It could be a pathway to breaking the ice with North Korea," said Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as a private citizen brought back U.S. military remains from North Korea in 2007. "It could be a breakthrough of soft power and I would urge the Trump administration to consider it."
Richardson and others noted that it was the search for missing American soldiers from the Vietnam War that was one of the first means of dialogue between the United States and communist Vietnam that eventually led to normalized relations.
"The intransigence on the policy issue [regarding North Korea] has prevented three administrations from continuing the MIA recovery program," Richardson added in an interview. "We have an obligation to bring those remains back for those families."