The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not very likely that parents of Korean War MIAs asked Trump to repatriate their children’s remains

President Trump speaks before signing the VA Mission Act of 2018 at the White House. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

One of the pledges that President Trump says he extracted from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their summit earlier this week was a commitment to repatriate the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War.

In an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier that aired on Wednesday, Trump made an unusual claim about his request that the remains of those soldiers be returned, if possible.

“One of the things that, really, I’m happy, is that the soldiers that died in Korea, their remains are going to be coming back home,” Trump told Baier. “And we have thousands of people that have asked for that. Thousands and thousands of people. So many people asked for that, when I was on the campaign. I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have any relationship.’ But they said, ‘When you can, President, we’d love our son to be brought back home,’ you know, the remains.”

Hostilities in the Korean War ended more than 60 years ago, meaning that Trump claims to have been confronted by people who were parents of adults at that point. On its surface that seems unlikely. Given Trump’s proclivity for adding multiple layers of hyperbole to even factually accurate assertions, the safe assumption would be that he took a kernel of truth — there is an effort to repatriate the remains of those missing service members— and parlayed that into a story about how he’s delivering for the families of soldiers.

That said, though, it’s also worth asking if there might have been multiple parents of Korean War dead who confronted him during the 2016 campaign. I mean, it’s not impossible, right?

And: No, it isn’t. It’s just very, very unlikely.

Most of those Americans missing in action in Korea went missing in 1950 — nearly 6 in 10 of them. Only 563 Americans went missing in 1953, the year the armistice was signed. At the outset of the war, men as young as 18½ were drafted into service. So the theoretical latest that a missing Korean War service member could have been born was 1953 minus 18.5 — or in 1934.

The next question, then, is how old that person’s parents would be. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that most mothers during that period were in their 20s when they gave birth.

Assuming that the average age of the mothers of service members born in 1934 was between 20 and 29, then, gives us a birth year of 1905 to 1914. Putting them during the 2016 election at between 102 and 111 years old.

How many centenarians were there in the population in 2016? Well, the Census Bureau can give us a decent estimate: About 82,000 Americans, most of them women, were older than 100 that year.

There probably weren’t very many Americans 111 years old who were alive in 2016, though. Wikipedia suggests that there are 24 Americans that old alive today.

But it is theoretically possible that there was a woman born in 1914 who had a kid in 1934 who was drafted into the Army, sent to Korea and was tragically one of those 563 people who went missing in the closing months of the conflict. It is possible that this theoretical woman, now older than 100, approached Trump on the campaign trail and asked him to bring her son home.

It’s just not likely.

Consider, too, that most children born in that period didn’t end up serving. In 1950, men aged 18½ to 35 were drafted — meaning born between 1915 and 1931. In total, more than 48 million Americans were born during that period, about half of whom were men. In total, about 2.8 million people served in that conflict, a little over half of whom were drafted. Put another way, the equivalent of about 11 percent of men born during that period ended up in Korea. Even assuming multiple-child households, well under half of mothers had a son serve in that conflict.

Of course, we’re also toeing a rigid line here, assuming that military and cultural boundaries were set. But, for example, we know that there was at least one 14-year-old who enlisted in the Korean War, Allan Stover, who joined the Coast Guard in 1953 after lying about his age. We also know that mothers — and fathers — can be much younger than 20 years old. The CDC data on the ages of mothers includes a category for mothers younger than 15. Without delving too much into ages of puberty and other somewhat tricky issues, we will note that a parent of a Korean War soldier could have been much younger in 2016.

Say that a teenager had a child who, in 1953, enlisted at the age of 14. The mother or father of that soldier could themselves have been born as late as 1926 — making them a spry 90 years old in 2016. There were 2.5 million people 90 or older in 2016; perhaps some of them remembered their young, missing sons to candidate Trump.

We’re going to remarkable lengths here to explain how this might have been possible. It’s highly unlikely that scores of those who went MIA in 1953 were the young teenage sons of teenage mothers who became politically active 60 years later. It’s not much less likely that a number of people older than 100 presented their cases to Trump on the campaign trail.

It has been speculated that perhaps Trump was mixing up missing Korean War soldiers with a story that emerged last summer in which it was theorized that some soldiers in that conflict were taken prisoner by the then-Soviet Union. Perhaps Trump was remembering the appeals of those families? Perhaps.

It’s far more likely that our original assertion was correct: That Trump was simply riffing on a pleasant thought that positioned him well.