The Pentagon announced Monday that the remains of a Marine killed in the Korean War had been identified, even as veterans call on U.S. President Donald Trump to keep the issue of the missing on the agenda for the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The overriding topic of the summit is denuclearization, but Keith Harman, national commander of the 1.7-million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a letter to Trump that those long missing from the war should also be a priority.
"As the leader of the free world, we urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that those who paid the ultimate price for freedom during the Korean War are finally returned to their families," he wrote.
The letter also went to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "For the families of those who never returned, the passage of time does not heal the wounds," Harman said.
"Hopefully, Tuesday's summit is the beginning of many sessions between the two governments," said Richard Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs.
"At some point, the issue of missing U.S. servicemen from the Korean War will need to be addressed," said Downes, whose father, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes, went missing over Korea in 1952.
The Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency said Monday that the remains of Marine Sgt. Meredith F. Keirn had been positively identified May 22.
In late November 1950, Keirn, then 25, of Pennsylvania, was a light-machine gun section leader for Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
He was reported to have been killed on Nov. 30, 1950, while defending a hill overlooking the Toktong Pass, a main supply route between the villages of Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni in North Korea.
The agency would not confirm that Keirn's remains were among those returned by North Korea before recovery efforts were suspended in 2005 until his family could be fully briefed.
According to the agency more than 7,800 Americans have not been accounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War -- about 5,300 of them in North Korea.
In his Memorial Day address, Trump called on the nation to "remember the American servicemen and women who remains missing from wars and conflicts fought over the past century. We will never stop searching for them, and whenever possible, we will bring them home."
South Korean officials have also pressed Trump to bring up the issue of the American missing and the estimated 120,000 South Korean military and police unaccounted for in the war.
On June 6, South Korea's Memorial Day, President Moon Jae-in, who has met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the lead-up to the summit in Singapore, said that recovering the remains is a top priority.
"We will continue efforts to recover the remains of members of the military and police who fell during the Korean War until we find the last remaining person," he said during a Memorial Day ceremony at Daejeon National Cemetery.
"When the South-North relations improve, we will push first for the recovery of remains in the Demilitarized Zone," the 154-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide area separating the two Koreas.
"We will also be able to retrieve the remains of U.S. and other foreign soldiers who participated in the war," he said. Under the United Nations flag, 16 other countries fought on the side of the U.S. and South Korea during the war.
Moon and Trump discussed the summit's agenda by phone Monday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
"President Moon and President Trump agreed Trump and Kim will be able to make a great achievement if the two leaders come together to find a common denominator through frank discussions," a Moon spokesman said.
The first meeting between Trump and Kim is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday local time in Singapore (9 p.m. Monday EDT).
Recovery efforts have been stalled for more than a decade amid the standoff over North Korean threats and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
From 1990 to 1994, North Korea returned 208 boxes of remains, although the Defense Department said many of the boxes appeared to contain mixed remains and estimated that as many as 400 individuals could be represented in the total of 208 boxes, the POW/MIA Accounting Agency said.
Between July 1996 and May 2005, the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) conducted 33 Joint Field Activities (JFAs) in North Korea and recovered more than 220 sets of remains, which are still being processed for identification in Hawaii.
On May 25, 2005, the U.S. suspended JFAs in North Korea due to security concerns; they have not been resumed, the agency said.
The painstaking work of identifying the remains turned over to the U.S. before recovery operations were suspended in 2005 has continued at the Hawaii laboratory.
Last week, flags across Kentucky were lowered to half-staff in honor of Army Cpl. Ernest L.R. Heilman, 19, of Greenup, Kentucky, who was buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Pentagon said Heilman was a member of Battery B, 15th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, when he was declared missing in action on Feb. 13, 1951, as his unit fought through a roadblock in Hoengsong, South Korea.
He was believed to have been captured and later died at the Changsong prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea. The Army declared him deceased in 1951.
In 1954, a set of remains was recovered from a cemetery at Changsong, but they were declared unidentifiable at the time.
After the development of DNA techniques, the remains were disinterred in June 2016 and later identified as those of Heilman through laboratory analysis.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.