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A Chance at Closure: Repatriation of American Remains from North Korea Offers Hope

On January 13, 2018, Hawaii residents woke to a jarring alert on their cell phones and television screens.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT BOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

I remember it clearly. My father woke me up in a frenzy after hearing news of an imminent North Korean missile attack, and for the next 38 minutes, panic ensued as my family rushed to close all the windows in our house. Eventually, we received word that the alert was, in fact, a false alarm.

We didn’t give the missile alert much thought after that. We considered the mishap an unfortunate yet isolated incident; life went on as usual. In June 2018, I visited my grandparents in Daegu, South Korea, where marathoning K-drama series, exploring the city’s historic alleyways, and indulging myself in Korean barbeque and street foods have defined my summers for the past decade.

But this summer was different. On June 12, 2018, from my grandparents’ living room, my family and I watched President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un shake hands at Singapore’s Capella Hotel, the first time a sitting U.S. president has done so with a North Korean leader.

According to Trump and Kim’s joint statement, the Singapore Summit was “a comprehensive, in-depth, and sincere exchange of opinions” concerning U.S.-North Korea relations, aimed at “the building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.While reporters were eager to cover its implications for nuclear disarmament, the statement’s last objective—the fourth bullet point on a roughly 400-word document—went largely unnoticed.

The final goal outlined in the Singapore Summit called for a mutual commitment to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers missing from the Korean War. A process that first began in 1990, the repatriation of American remains in North Korea is nothing new. Yet, repatriation efforts were notably halted in 2005 during the Bush presidency, the suspension attributable to security concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapon development. Since then, zero sets of American remains were returned to the U.S.—until last July, when the transfer of remains resumed for the first time in 13 years.

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The most recent remains transfer occurred on July 27, 2018, exactly 65 years after North Korean, Chinese, and U.S.-led United Nations forces signed an agreement that effectively halted the Korean War with a cease-fire. The repatriation mission was negotiated between the North Korean military and the U.S. Department of Defense. A team of lab managers from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and anthropologists from the Korean War Project, a subgroup of the DPAA, led the repatriation efforts. They received the 55 boxes of American remains firsthand from the North Korean military and inspected the remains before transferring them to the U.S. for further analysis.

In an interview with The Politic, Jennie Jin, the current director of the Korean War Project, recalled traveling to North Korea in July for the first time with her team of anthropologists.

“Flying into North Korea was especially memorable because both my grandparents from my father’s and mother’s sides were from North Korea,” Jin said, noting that she was only speaking for herself and not for the Korean War Project. “We were in Wonsan—a major port city on the east coast of North Korea—for only three hours, but it was still a very emotional experience because that’s where my maternal grandmother was captured by the North Koreans during the war.”

After accepting the remains and conducting a preliminary review in Wonsan, Jin and her team relocated to an American air base in Osan, South Korea. There, the team spent two full days unpacking and identifying the skeletal parts in the boxes of remains.

By the end of the analysis, they hope to determine how many individuals were present in each box. According to Jin, 55 boxes of remains do not necessarily equal 55 different individuals. Co-mingling, she said, is likely–meaning multiple individuals’ remains could be present in a single box.

After taking measurements, the Korean War Project team began a DNA sampling of the bones, which, according to Jin, will take weeks—possibly months—to complete. After undergoing initial analysis in Hawaii, the samples will be sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Washington, D.C, where scientists will compare the results of the DNA tests to family reference samples. Ultimately, the goal of the project is to match all the bones to DNA samples of families who lost loved ones during the Korean War.

The project’s success hinges on factors like the presence of dental records, the availability of family DNA samples, and the types of bones involved. (Certain bones, like clavicles, can be more easily matched to an individual than others.) DNA analysis is a rate-limiting factor. Rick Downes, the executive director of the Coalition for Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, told The Politic, “DNA identification can take months alone. Some men will be identified within the next few months; others will take much longer.”

Four months after the July 27 remains transfer, only two individuals have been identified by the DPAA’s laboratories in Hawaii. In both cases, special conditions aided the process: in one box was a dog tag; in the other, the serviceman identified was especially tall. But for families whose relatives weren’t gifted with unusual physical features or IDs at their times of death, there isn’t yet an end in sight.

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Following the remains transfer, liberal media outlets, such as MSNBC and The Washington Post, dismissed the effort as a mere search for bones that contributed nothing to the broader objective of North Korea’s denuclearization. By contrast, Fox News and op-eds in other conservative American news outlets lauded Trump’s efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the political divide surrounding the remains recovery, individuals like Jin and Downes, whose own father went missing in Korea in 1952, speak to its humanitarian value.

“We’re only going to learn the answer to one man’s fate by pursuing them all,” Downes said. “The government is not going to spend tens of millions of dollars looking for my dad, but they will spend it to look for all of the men.”

To family members of soldiers who went missing in action, the repatriation process in North Korea provides a sense of “hope with caution,” Downes explained. He noted that the recent transfer of 55 boxes accounts for only one percent of the approximately 7,000 Korean War veterans—both abroad and buried in Hawaii’s Punchbowl National Cemetery—that have yet to be identified. “You don’t want to get overly hopeful because we have had disappointments throughout the decades,” he cautioned.

Yet for Downes, the ongoing repatriation process signifies the “hope that it will be our loved one found,” he said, “and the feeling of joy when another family gets the answer that they’ve been hoping for.”

Jin said, “Politics aside, this will bring some closure to the families who have been waiting for a very long time.”

Jin believes the repatriation mission is particularly relevant to young Americans. The men who lost their lives during the Korean War—many of whom had never heard of Korea before leaving to fight there—were mostly between the ages of 18 and 23. “Most of them were drafted, went to war, and never made it back home,” Jin said. “So it’s an obligation to bring them back home—that’s the humanitarian side of why we should care.”

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Repatriation efforts and U.S.-North Korea relations often closely align. While the first repatriation efforts began in 1990, the operations were halted multiple times, usually when U.S.-North Korea relations were at historic lows.

Most notably, in 2005, the U.S. government pulled the Korean War Project team from North Korea, citing safety concerns following the failure of the six-party talks–a series of negotiations between the U.S., the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, and China aimed at enacting a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Although the repatriation process has a rocky history, the most recent remains handoff can be compared to similar negotiations in the past that have led to positive outcomes.

The 1994 repatriation of American remains from the Vietnam War played a critical role in President Bill Clinton’s decision to lift a trade embargo against Vietnam. The following year, Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, breaking two decades of severed ties.

“Although [the remains transfer] may look trivial to some of the people in the hub of politics, it’s important to look at what happened in Vietnam and how we reestablished a relationship with a country we fought against,” Jin maintained.

Engaging with North Korea on the transfer of American remains could also serve as a way for the U.S. to mitigate Korea-related policy crises. Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, is familiar with negotiations between the two countries regarding remains repatriation. He explained to The Politic that the remains negotiation makes the U.S.-North Korea relationship “thicker” than a “single thread” dependent on the success of nuclear negotiations.  

“If we have a fight over the issue of denuclearization, we still have that channel working,” he said.

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As a left-leaning Korean American whose great-grandparents fled North Korea just prior to the war, I find myself caught between two conflicting dialogues regarding the transfer of Korean War remains. The liberal American narratives I consume are skeptical that the remains transfer could ease political tensions. But my family members in South Korea support the repatriation efforts. In fact, for many South Korean citizens whose families were relocated, divided, and subjected to unimaginable hardships during the war, the Singapore Summit was a symbol of hope.

Won-ho Park, professor of political science at Seoul National University, agreed that the remains negotiations have struck many South Koreans as a step forward. “When you live in Korea, the miniscule possibility of reducing war right in your backyard—it is something,” Park said. “I think the Korean public opinion is responding to that.”

Public views on the Singapore Summit in South Korea are creating “a strange cross-wiring of liberals and conservatives,” Park added, with most Korean liberals supporting any form of peace talks involving the North, despite Trump’s reckless diplomacy.

“Somebody has to take a leap, which is something you don’t normally see in traditional diplomacy,” Park said. “But if there is someone who can do that, it’s probably Trump. That’s the way that most Koreans are thinking right now.”

The stakes of diplomacy between North Korea and South Korea are high; without a formal peace agreement, the two Koreas are technically still at war. When it comes to imagining the number of Korean deaths during the war, Bergman said, “most Americans do not know, and the answer is in the millions.” According to some estimates, the “Forgotten War,” as Americans colloquially describe it, had a death toll of 4.5 million North and South Korean soldiers and civilians.

“When Americans think about the Korean War, they think, ‘this was a small war between World War II and Vietnam.’ And that’s a mismatch in the American psyche of understanding,” Bergman said. “With 4.5 million people dead, that means that every single family [in Korea] had suffered casualties.”

When thinking about the two Koreas’ diverging societies, I am often reminded of a photograph taken at night from outer space that demonstrates the stark contrast between the two nations. On the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone, the land is awash in bright lights, while the northern half is cloaked in darkness. Each year, thousands of young men in both nations are conscripted into the military and charged with the defense of their half. Since the peak of North Korea’s crippling famine in the late 1990s, thirty thousand North Koreans have risked their lives to defect to the South. And while South Korea is known on the global stage as a leading producer of technology and pop culture, the North remains infamous for its human rights violations. The costs of an unfinished war are immeasurable.

It is impossible to predict when and if the Korean Peninsula will ever be reunited, if the North will ever denuclearize, and if an actual missile attack will ever reach the shores of Hawaii. Meanwhile, the descendants of fallen soldiers, families split by the 38th parallel, and elders who can still remember life in an undivided Korea continue to grapple with the legacy of war. For many of them, the transfer of remains is a chance at some closure.