US Reschedules Meeting with North Koreans on Return of Troop Remains

Senior leaders from 24 countries throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) during the Pacific Amphibious Leaders Symposium 2017 held in South Korea, April 3, 2017. (Courtesy photo/Republic of Korea Marine Corps)
Senior leaders from 24 countries throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) during the Pacific Amphibious Leaders Symposium 2017 held in South Korea, April 3, 2017. (Courtesy photo/Republic of Korea Marine Corps)

The U.S. is expected to try again Sunday to meet with the North Koreans at Panmunjom on the Demilitarized Zone to discuss the return of the remains of U.S. troops missing from the 1950-53 Korean War.

A U.S. team went to Panmunjom Thursday for the meeting, arranged by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but the North Koreans were no-shows. Defense Department, United Nations Command (UNC) and U.S. Forces Korea officials were left waiting in the DMZ's Joint Security Area.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said later that the North Koreans called at about midday Thursday to ask for a postponement until Sunday.

The North Koreans gave no reason for the postponement but offered to meet on July 15th, Nauert told reporters on Pompeo's plane returning to Washington from the NATO summit, according to an Associated Press report.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North could be balking on whether the talks should be government-to-government, or involve U.S. Forces Korea and the UNC.

U.S. Forces Korea has already moved about 100 wooden transfer caskets to the DMZ in anticipation of the return of remains. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the UNC would initially take custody of the remains and preside at the dignified transfer to the U.S. military.

When and if the remains are returned, they would be taken to Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, and then to DPAA's laboratories in Hawaii to begin the painstaking and lengthy process of identification.

A phone line exists at Panmunjom to connect North Korea with the UNC, which oversees the armistice in effect since 1953, but for years the North has refused to pick up the phone, Yonhap reported.

When the UNC has a message to deliver, an official walks up to the Military Demarcation Line and shouts it out, Yonhap reported.

President Donald Trump has touted the return of remains as one of the major achievements of his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

About 7,700 U.S. troops are still listed as missing from the Korean War. Of that number, 5,300 are believed to have fallen north of the 38th parallel marking the DMZ, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The summit agreement called for the "immediate repatriation" of remains and since then Trump has a made series of conflicting claims on the status of the returns.

"We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back," Trump told a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on June 20. He later said at a Cabinet meeting that the remains were in the process of being returned.

On Thursday, after he arrived in Britain following the NATO summit, Trump disclosed that he had received a letter from Kim Jong-un.

"A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made," Trump said in a Tweet.

The letter, dated July 6, referred to Trump as "Your Excellency" five times in four sentences but made no mention of the return of remains or North Korea's pledge to begin the process of dismantling its nuclear and missile programs.

Kim also appeared to suggest another summit with Trump.

"Wishing that the invariable trust and confidence in Your Excellency Mr. President will be further strengthened in the future process of taking practical actions, I extend my conviction that the epochal progress in promoting the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]-U.S. relations will bring our next meeting forward," Kim said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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