The operations would be carried out jointly with North Korean troops and mark a new form of progress between the nations that the Trump administration can tout while attempting to negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization.
The repatriation effort, bogged down by years of mistrust on both sides, took a turn in July when North Korean officials turned over 55 cases of remains to U.S. officials. That marked one of the first concrete wins following President Trump’s June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. No joint recovery operations have been carried out in North Korea since 2005.
McKeague described North Korea’s most recent repatriation proposal as “out of sorts” but sounded a note of optimism that a deal will be reached. However, ambulances are not necessary because the United States deploys medics as part of the missions.
“We have medics on station,” he said. “So, that would be something we would push back and say, ‘Not possible.’ ”
The Pentagon has sent North Korea at least $22 million since 1990 while recovering 629 remains, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that McKeague leads. Defense officials said they are willing to reimburse North Korea for costs associated with recovery but will not pay for remains themselves.
The new repatriation talks began after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allowed the Pentagon to pursue discussions with North Korean officials, McKeague said. The recovery agency reached out to North Korea’s mission at the United Nations in New York, and hopes to meet with North Korean officials in a neutral third-party country in October.
The Pentagon believes the remains of about 5,300 service members are still in North Korea. A commingled “mishmash of bones” were in the cases of remains recovered in July, McKeague said, and they ultimately could belong to significantly more than 55 people.
The military was able to quickly identify the remains of the first two quickly because their skulls and clavicles were present, allowing the agency to use dental records and a technique matching clavicles to X-rays of missing service members, McKeague said.
President Trump announced on Twitter on Thursday that the two soldiers who have been identified are Army Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel, 32, of Indiana and Army Pfc. William H. Jones, 19, of North Carolina. The Army notified the soldiers’ families this week.
Trump is expected to speak about the recovery effort on Friday as the White House marks National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
It could take significantly longer to identify the remains of other service members in the group; the process is often painstaking and takes years.
Separately, the Koreas have reached an agreement that will allow South Korea to launch a mission in October from the demilitarized zone between the countries to recover South Korean remains. McKeague said it is unlikely that any three-party repatriation missions will be launched.
“The North Koreans were very explicit and said that they are going to talk to the South Koreans bilaterally,” he said, “And they talk to the United States bilaterally.”