The Pentagon has suspended efforts to recover the remains of U.S. troops in North Korea, officials said Wednesday, the latest indication that recently negotiated agreements between the two countries are at risk of falling apart.
Less than a week ago, North Korea said it intends to use a rocket to blast a satellite into space — a move that is being interpreted as a thinly veiled missile test, which would violate U.N. resolutions.
“Look, fundamentally, this is about them meeting international obligations,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said Wednesday. “This launch they said they’re going to conduct violates those obligations. And we have to hold them [to] account for that.”
More than 7,960 U.S. service members from the Korean War are still missing, with 5,300 of them thought to be buried in North Korea. For decades, efforts to recover the remains have been stop-and-go, tied up in U.S. attempts to engage with the isolated authoritarian government over its nuclear weapons program.
After six years of diplomatic gridlock, American officials reached an agreement with North Korea last year to resume recovery efforts, bringing a measure of hope to frustrated families awaiting the return of loved ones. That agreement soon led to an even more significant deal last month in which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program and missile tests and allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities in exchange for desperately needed food aid.
Now, with North Korea’s satellite launch scheduled for next month, the food deal is almost certainly dead and the recovery of remains halted indefinitely. It is not clear whether a planned visit to North Korea by nuclear inspectors will go ahead.
The International Atomic Energy Agency revealed this week that North Korea extended an invitation to the watchdog’s nuclear monitors the same day that it announced the planned satellite launch.
The IAEA refused to detail the terms of the invitation — including what inspectors might be able to see and test. U.S. officials have said they welcome a chance to get international eyes on North Korea’s nuclear program, which has gone unmonitored since the country expelled such experts and resumed its activities three years ago.
“Obviously, there’s benefit for any access that the IAEA can get,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we would consider a satellite launch a violation not only of their U.N. obligations but of the commitments they made to us.”
As part of the U.S. recovery project, North Korea stood to gain millions in money spent by the United States in the effort. U.S. workers were supposed to land this month in North Korea to start work. But in recent weeks, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Tara Rigler, North Korea has refused to let in an advance team and has not taken other steps that were part of the agreement.