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US proposes October talks on recovering war remains from North Korea
The Pentagon has offered to meet with the North Koreans in the last week of October in a third-party country to negotiate joint excavation operations to recover more Korean War remains, the head of the agency in charge of the mission said Thursday.
The agency would hope to start the operations in spring 2019, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) director Kelly McKeague added.
"We fully expect to be able to reach a suitable arrangement that is compatible with both nations and our objectives," he told the Defense Writer's Group.
Recovering Korean War remains was one the commitments President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to at their Singapore summit in June.
About 7,000 U.S. service members from the Korean War remain unaccounted for, with DPAA estimating that about 5,300 were lost in North Korea.
In July, North Korea turned over 55 cases of remains believed to be of U.S. troops.
DPAA has identified two people in that set of remains so far. The Army notified one family Tuesday and the other family Wednesday, McKeague said Thursday.
McKeague would not reveal the identity of the soldiers Thursday morning, saying the White House has requested to do that. He said he expects the announcement to come either later Thursday at Vice President Pence's event at the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation or Friday as part of Trump's POW/MIA Recognition Day proclamation.
Following the July repatriation, U.S. and North Korean officials have eyed resuming joint field operations to recover more remains.
Joint U.S.-North Korean military search teams conducted such operations from 1996 to 2005, but then-President George W. Bush halted them over what he said were safety concerns for the U.S. teams.
Critics have also charged that North Korea uses such programs as a means to extract money from the United States.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given DPAA authority to pursue direct negotiations with the North Korean Army on resuming recovery operations, McKeague said.
After getting that permission, DPAA twice contacted North Korea's U.N. mission in New York, he said. One time was to tell the ambassador DPAA want to use him to communicate with the Korean People's Army and the second to invite the North to proposed October talks.
"What Ambassador Pak [Song Il], who is the No. 2 at the U.N. mission, what he's indicated is that they are very interested in the resumption of field operations, to wit they want to sit down with us," McKeague said. "We've yet to be able to work out the details or receive any kind of confirmation from them as to when or where."
The North Koreans presented United Nations Command with its proposal for resuming the operations in July, McKeague said.
"In the meeting that they had with United Nations Command in July, they said, 'We're ready,'" McKeague said. "In fact, they were surprised, when they gave them their first proposal, they fully expected the United Nations Command to be able to discuss right then and there. Unfortunately, that's not their responsibility. It's the Department of Defense's."
The proposal was similar to an agreement that was reached in 2011, but updated for inflation, he said. The 2011 agreement was ultimately abandoned a year later when North Korea conducted missile tests.
Still, he added, there were elements of the July proposal that were "out of sorts." For example, the proposal called for the United States to provide eight ambulances, which McKeague said is unnecessary.
DPAA is coordinating a counterproposal with the State Department and the National Security Council, as well as the Treasury Department since sanctions waivers will likely be needed, McKeague said.
"For us, it was not unexpected," he said of the North's proposal. "Obviously, our counterproposal will say that's not reasonable."