“We have reached the point where we can no longer effectively plan, coordinate, and conduct field operations in the DPRK during this fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2019,” the statement said. “We are assessing possible next steps in resuming communications with the [North Koreans] to plan for potential joint recovery operations to be scheduled during Fiscal Year 2020.”
The decision, announced by the Defense Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), adds another layer of complexity to U.S. relations with North Korea.
No communication about repatriation has occurred since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in a summit in Hanoi in late February, the agency said. Trump abruptly ended negotiations with Kim after the leader demanded that the United States remove all economic sanctions against his country without North Korean ending its nuclear program.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. David Eastburn, said in another statement that DPAA “remains open to productive discussions” with North Korea about the resumption of recovery operations.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “have been clear about our openness to continue negotiations with North Korea to make further progress on the commitments the President and Chairman Kim made in Singapore,” Eastburn said.
The collapse in talks in Hanoi came after Kim and Trump agreed in a previous summit in June 2018 that North Korea would turn over the remains of dozens of American service members. Fifty-five cases of skeletal remains were given to the U.S. military late the following month and received by Vice President Pence in a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
The repatriation, seen as one of the few concrete victories for Trump out of the Singapore summit, raised hopes that the United States might be able to resume searching for the remains of other U.S. troops in North Korea.
“This is unfortunately simply another heartbreak along the way of trying to find out what has happened to our loved ones,” said Rick Downes, executive director of a group of families whose loved ones never came home from the Korean War.
The U.S. military carried out 33 investigative and recovery missions into North Korea between 1996 and 2005, but those efforts were scuttled as the political situation between Washington and Pyongyang deteriorated. The remains of six more U.S. soldiers were repatriated in 2007 after the administration of George W. Bush made an attempt at disarmament, but recovering more proved elusive.
Downes, whose father Hal has been missing in action since 1952, said it is not a surprise that repatriation efforts stalled after negotiations in Hanoi “fell off a cliff like they did.” He urged the Trump administration to bring up the issue more frequently with North Korean officials.
“They just do not include it in their talking points,” said Downes, who runs the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs. “That’s what Pyongyang is hearing. They’re hearing that this is just not a priority.”