While the world waits to see what happens next in North Korea, some American families will be following the drama especially closely, looking for signs of how Kim Jong Il’s death will affect the search for the remains of U.S. troops who died there long ago.
For more than half a century, the hopes of recovering the remains of an estimated 8,000 lost in the Korean War have ebbed and flowed with the rollercoaster nature of the U.S. relationship with North Korea.
Just two months ago, those hopes rose higher than ever after U.S. officials overcame six years of diplomatic gridlock and negotiated an agreement to go back into the country and resume work retrieving remains. Now North Korea is in upheaval again with the death of its longtime leader, and like so many other things about the country, the fate of the recovery effort is unclear.
“We’re just trying to remain positive, and believe that the recovery agreement will hold,” said Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs. “It’s something the North Koreans have wanted for a long time now, and I would think they still want that.”
Pentagon officials reiterated their past statements that the recovery effort is a humanitarian issue they say is not tied to the politics of North Korea, but they declined to speculate on whether the agreement will move forward or be suspended.
“It’s a race against time at this point,” said Downes, 63, whose father’s plane went down in North Korea when Downes was 3 years old.
With every year that passes, the number of potential witnesses in North Korean villages dwindle. Also running out of time are aging family members like Downes’ mother. “Each year we cross more folks off our list as more pass away,” he said.
In the past, North Korea has welcomed the effort, which involves U.S. personnel working alongside the North Korean army, because money is paid to the military of the cash-starved nation for its assistance.
Under the most recent agreement, the U.S. was planning to pay nearly $5.7 million, according to the Defense P.O.W./Missing Personnel Office of the Pentagon. Everything had been set to go. Two 13-person teams were preparing to deploy to begin work this spring. Officials had even picked out their two areas for focused searching – one in Unsan county and other near the Chosin Reservoir, the sites of some of the most intense fighting and heavy casualties during the Korean War.
Adding impetus to the search was a mandate from Congress included in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act requiring the U.S. military to increase its number of newly identified missing soldiers to 200 a year worldwide by 2015.
That edict now has military officials scrambling for ways to recover and identify new remains. As the chance for identifications from World War II grows slimmer with the passage of time, North Korea – the second largest conflict in terms of missing soldiers -- has emerged as the best possible source to meet those numbers, officials say.
Even without access to the country, several families have been reunited with their remains recently – mostly from a backlog of 208 boxes of remains that handed over by North Korea in early 1990s that sat for years at a military facility in Hawaii.
Those boxes could contain up to 400 sets of remains, but the problem, military officials say, is that North Korean workers commingled many of the remains, and the U.S. military has been struggling for years to sort them out.
Family groups believe sufficient funding also has hampered efforts.
Whatever the reason, the numbers of identified remains from Korea from those boxes has risen rapidly since the mandate from Congress from 19 in 2009 to 36 in 2011.
One of the most recent remains identified belonged to the uncle of Ruth Davis, 62, who was just one year old when Sgt. 1st Class Benny D. Rogers disappeared in the battle at Unsan and was never heard from again.
Her entire life, Davis’ grandmother talked of when her Benny would come home. It wasn’t until a few years before her death three years ago that her grandmother faced the possibility she might never see her son again.
Then two months ago, Davis received a phone call telling her forensic experts in Hawaii had identified her uncle’s remains.
“I know it probably doesn’t make a difference to him because he’s dead,” she said. “Or even to my grandmother and others who knew him because they’ve already passed away, but it makes a difference to me and to our family. To be able to bury him here and to know in our minds that they are finally together now, it fills a huge hole that was in our hearts. I just pray other families will have that too.”
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