U.S. recovery teams could be on the ground in North Korea by next spring to search for the remains of service members lost during the Korean War if the thaw in relations continues, according to the Pentagon's top POW/MIA official.
"Our collective goal is to commence field operations in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] next spring," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
"We have not yet reached an agreement with the DPRK regarding future field recoveries. However, we are working closely with our DoD, State Department, and National Security Council partners on this matter," he said in a statement Friday to the National League of POW/MIA Families and veterans groups.
Ann Mills-Griffiths, the long-time advocate for the families of the missing and board chairman of the League, said the return of 55 sets of remains thought to be those of U.S. service members last week was "an encouraging first step" but noted that North Korea has gone back on its commitments in the past.
She asked, "Will they be serious" in future talks on more recoveries and "will there be compensation?" North Korea has previously demanded payment for its cooperation in joint recovery efforts.
"Obviously, we want to continue with this humanitarian effort" on remains recoveries, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters Friday.
When asked why the North Koreans had handed over only 55 transfer cases, when the U.S. had been led to expect that there might be as many as 200, he said it was a good question.
Mattis also said it is impossible at this point to tell whether the remains are those of U.S. service members or those of allies. In addition, animal bones have been mixed in with human remains in previous recoveries.
"We don't know who's in those cases," he said. "We don't know. We can't confirm one way or the other."
In his statement, McKeague said DPAA forensic specialists are conducting a preliminary review of the remains at Osan.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected to attend the formal transfer Wednesday of the remains to the custody of the U.S. military at Osan. They will then be flown to Hawaii to begin the painstaking process of identification at DPAA labs, which could take years in some cases.
"We are guardedly optimistic about the weeks and months ahead, as we endeavor to bring long-awaited answers to more families who lost loved ones in the Korean War," McKeague said in his statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.