After six years of diplomatic gridlock, U.S. officials have reached an agreement with North Korea to resume recovering the remains of troops killed in the Korean War, bringing a measure of hope to frustrated families awaiting the return of loved ones.
Roughly 8,000 U.S. service members from the war are still missing, with 5,500 of them thought to be buried in North Korea. For decades, their recovery has been tied up with U.S. efforts to engage with the isolated authoritarian government over its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials have tried to separate the issues of the remains — and the delivery of food aid — from multilateral disarmament talks with North Korea. But the regime’s leaders have often pursued or stymied talks on all three fronts.
The agreement to resume recovery comes just days before a meeting on Monday and Tuesday between U.S. and North Korean officials in Geneva on nuclear issues. Over the summer, the United States and South Korea began talking once again with the North about a possible return to the so-called six-party talks.
The agreement on recovery operations was negotiated over three days in Bangkok, according to the Defense Department.
U.S. teams will resume work next year in two areas in North Korea — Unsan County, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, and near the Chosin/Jangjin Reservoir — where more than 2,000 soldiers and Marines are believed to be missing. In a statement, the Defense Department called it “a stand-alone humanitarian matter, not tied to any other issue between the two countries.”
In 1996, after negotiations, the U.S. military began excavations in North Korea to search for missing U.S. service members. Over nearly a decade, such operations yielded 229 sets of remains, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. Of that number, only 87 troops have been identified and returned to their families.
Part of the problem was that many of the uncovered remains were buried together and could not be clearly isolated.