Experts urge caution over latest North Korean move


North Korea’s move to return dozens of boxes of U.S. war remains has been repeatedly celebrated by President Trump as an example of the country keeping its word, but experts are warning against hailing the action as a major step in broader talks to push Pyongyang toward denuclearization.

Experts note that North Korea in the past has returned remains back to the United States to coincide with a bid for a place on the world stage, with its latest release of 55 boxes of U.S. remains from the Korean War being viewed as a negotiating tool to help Pyongyang stay in the Trump administration’s good graces.


“I think North Korea realizes that this is a very emotional issue for all Americans and they want to sadly use our honored soldiers as a way to gain leverage,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for National Interest.

“I would anticipate that we will get more remains — as long as relations stay positive.”

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for Korea who now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation, similarly said that he believes North Korea “has hundreds of sets of remains that they’ve had in storage just ready to dole out as negotiating tactics.”

He pointed to the fact that the North was able to return 55 boxes just weeks after the June 12 summit in Singapore between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying while the U.S. is “grateful that we can return some of our fallen warriors to their families in a belated homecoming, it is a cynical move by North Korea.”

“They didn’t just go out to a battlefield from the 1950s, discover 55 remains, dig them up and process them in order to return. Clearly they’ve been holding on to them,” Klingner said.

Pentagon officials said Thursday they do not know how many Americans’ remains North Korea may still be holding, and at first glance the returned boxes appear to hold remains not recently recovered, alluding that they may have sat in storage for quite some time.

“We’re not sure why the number [55]. We’re also not sure how many they do possess,” said Kelly McKeague, the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), an organization formed in 2015 and tasked with identifying such remains.

About 7,700 Americans are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, which took place from 1950 until 1953, with the Pentagon believing that 5,300 are in North Korea. More than 36,000 American troops were killed in the war.

The last time Pyongyang returned remains — six boxes sent back to the U.S. in 2007 — North Korea was in the midst of talks with other nations to shut down its Yongbyon reactor in return for oil and economic aid.

From 1990 to 1994, North Korea also returned 208 other cases of remains, according to officials.

The U.S. recovered 229 more from 1996 to 2005 through joint recovery teams. The teams were stopped in 2005 during the George W. Bush administration due to security concerns.

The return of more remains this week stems from Trump’s summit with Kim in June, at which North Korea also agreed to eventually denuclearize in return for unspecified security guarantees from the U.S.

Trump initially said in June that the North had returned 200 remains, but in the end 55 boxes arrived in Hawaii this week.

The Defense Department in a media briefing Thursday said all of the remains “appear to be American,” but it’s still not clear, as Australia and the United Kingdom also sent troops to fight in Korea.

Officials also said each box was marked with information that included where the remains were found, and included some military hardware including canteens, belt buckles and pieces of uniforms.

Only one dog tag was provided with the remains, but officials stressed that it doesn’t mean the person’s remains were also included in the returned boxes.

John Byrd, the head scientist for the DPAA, said the agency will now begin the long and meticulous process of identifying the remains.

He could not give a time estimate for the endeavor, and said the process could take months or in some cases years. Forensic scientists will match the remains with DNA samples, dental records and other data.

“Where we have matches, compelling matches with DNA, we will get a very strong lead and be able to pursue identifications quickly,” Byrd said.

Trump last week lauded the North’s return of the remains, thanking Kim personally for “keeping his word.”

“Thank you to Chairman Kim Jong Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and beloved missing fallen! I am not at all surprised that you took this kind action,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Around the same time, the Trump administration also touted the beginning of the destruction of a missile engine testing site as Pyongyang living up to the commitments Kim made at the summit in June.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, told senators last week that North Korea is still producing the material necessary to make nuclear bombs.

And on Friday, Pompeo told reporters that there is “still a ways to go before” the country fully denuclearizes.

Klinger pointed out that the returned remains “have nothing to do with denuclearization,” and North Korea will “try to get something in return” from the United States.

“The remains returns, the closing of the nuclear test site, the closure of missile test site are all very good, but in a way irrelevant to actual denuclearization,” he said. 

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pompeo

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