The Defense Department has an ambitious plan to bring home and identify more remains of service members missing from the Korean War, assuming that the fraught negotiations on North Korea's disarmament and sanctions relief make progress.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that the talks had made little headway since the June 12 Singapore summit at which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly pledged to U.S. President Donald Trump that he would dismantle his nuclear weapons and missile programs.
"Chairman Kim made a commitment to denuclearize," Pompeo told reporters traveling with him to Singapore for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
However, "We can see we still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome we're looking for," Reuters quoted Pompeo as saying.
DoD officials and family group advocates have long argued that remains recoveries should be dealt with as a humanitarian issue apart from other considerations, but security concerns have trumped repatriations in the past.
The last joint recovery mission, with U.S. teams on the ground under the supervision of North Korea's People's Army, was in 2005.
The administration of former President George W. Bush cut off recovery operations as North Korea pressed ahead with its nuclear and missile programs. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time that he could not guarantee the recovery teams' safety.
At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), said the U.S. has a "sacred obligation" to pursue a full accounting of the estimated 7,700 U.S. service members still missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, including about 5,300 lost on battlefields, in prison camps or at crash sites in North Korea.
The DPAA has a staff of about 720, but that number could expand if North Korea follows through on commitments made to Pompeo to consider a resumption of joint recovery operations, possibly in the spring, McKeague said.
"We do know that, over the years, whether it's an agricultural project, a road being built or what have you, that the likelihood of recovering remains is fairly high," he said. The DPAA over the years also has developed detailed maps of former battlefields, prison camps and crash sites where recoveries are likely.
Should North Korea agree to joint recovery operations, the U.S. teams would be unarmed, as they have been in the past, McKeague said. "Because the mission is considered humanitarian in nature, our teams do not deploy. Our military teams do not deploy in uniform, they carry no weapons and the host nation recognizes it as a humanitarian endeavor."
In anticipation of more returns, McKeague and Dr. John Byrd, a forensic anthropologist and director of the DPAA's labs in Hawaii, said the agency is doubling the number of forensic anthropologists from five to 10 assigned to the Korean War Project team in Hawaii. The project is led by Dr. Jenny Jin, whose grandparents fled North Korea for Seoul during the war, McKeague said.
"So we're going to essentially double the size of the project team, and their job is to manage the DNA sampling" from the remains in 55 transfer cases sent to Hawaii's Hickam Air Force Base on Wednesday for an "honorable carry" ceremony presided over by Vice President Mike Pence, Byrd said.
McKeague and Byrd said the DNA samples would be sent to the Armed Forces Identification Laboratories at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as the first step in the difficult process of matching them against the DPAA's DNA database from the families of the missing.
Byrd led the U.S. team that went to Wonsan in North Korea last week to take custody of the transfer cases. He said it is impossible to tell at this point how many individuals are represented by the 55 cases, since the remains could be commingled.
Initial indications are that the remains are possibly those of Americans who fell at the 1950 battle at Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, DPAA officials said.
"So you can sum all that up to say that everything we saw was consistent with these remains, indeed, being from the Korean War, and consistent with these remains being good candidates to be missing Americans from the Korean War," Byrd said.
One dog tag was found in the preliminary examination of the cases, McKeague said, which will be given to two relatives of the deceased service member to whom it belonged at a meeting with family groups next week in a Washington suburb.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.