North Koreans Finally Meet with US General 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)

North Korea agreed Sunday to resume joint searches with the U.S. at an unspecified date for the remains of U.S. troops missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, the State Department said.

The agreement came in the first military-to-military negotiations in more than nine years between the U.S. and North Korea.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Minihan, chief of staff of the United Nations Command and chief of staff for U.S. Forces Korea at the Yongsan Army garrison in Seoul, led a U.S. team that met with a North Korean military delegation at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the talks led by Minihan were "productive and cooperative and resulted in firm commitments."

He said that talks would resume Monday aimed at expediting the return of remains already in North Korea's possession. The meeting would "‎coordinate the next steps, including the transfer of remains already collected" in North Korea, Pompeo said.

In addition, "both sides agreed to re-commence field operations in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who never returned home," Pompeo said.

The U.S. and North Korean militaries have had contacts 16 times since 1998 on a variety of issues, but the meeting Sunday was the first between high-ranking U.S. and North Korean officers since March 2009, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

The meeting arranged by the U.S. State Department was originally scheduled to take place last Thursday, but the North Koreans were no-shows. A State Department spokesman said later that the North Koreans asked for the meeting to be postponed until Sunday but gave no reason for the delay.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed on the repatriation of remains at their June 12 summit in Singapore.

Since then, Trump has said or tweeted several times that remains had already been returned or were in the process of being returned but there have been no repatriations reported thus far.

On June 29, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the U.S. expected to receive remains "in the not-too-distant future" but "we have not yet physically received them."

The North is believed to have about 200 sets of remains ready to be transferred, and U.S. Forces Korea has moved 100 caskets to the border area in anticipation that they will be turned over.

For the meeting Sunday, three U.S. Forces Korea vehicles came to the border area and switched to United Nations flags before driving to Panmunjom, Yonhap reported.

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, about 7,700 U.S. troops are still listed as missing from the Korean War, and about 5,300 of that total are believed to have fallen in North Korea.

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

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