North Korea

Will North Korea’s return of soldiers’ remains buy a US exit from the Korean peninsula?

Donald Kirk says North Korea has used US soldiers’ remains as a moneymaking scheme in the past, and now may be after a bigger payoff – a peace declaration and exit of US troops from the Korean peninsula

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 10:30pm

The North Koreans are reluctant to talk about “denuclearisation” but are winning easy points exploiting the bones of about 5,300 American soldiers missing from the Korean war. 

At every stage of discussion on the return of their remains, Pyongyang promotes a peace declaration also endorsed by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. What could be a better time to get across the message than next week’s 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the war?

Wouldn’t that be the moment to transfer the first batch of the 200 sets of remains US President Donald Trump mistakenly announced had already been returned?

The North Koreans would love to replace the armistice with a peace treaty. That’s crucial to calling for withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea. Moon has said he’s not in favour of US troops leaving, but the North Koreans and their Seoul mates are sure to ask, if we’re “at peace”, why should the Americans be here and why maintain the alliance?

The North Koreans will promote that argument, and are banking on Trump’s enthusiasm for searching for the remains as a means to that end.

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Considering that Trump went along with Kim Jong-un’s request at their summit in Singapore to halt joint US-South Korean military exercises, pro-North strategists think there’s a chance he’ll assent to a statement on peace while the North begins transferring those remains at the North-South line at Panmunjom.

For North Korea, the return of the remains promises to be a gift that keeps on giving. The United States holds that each set of remains is priceless, but the North stands to reap millions of dollars in “expenses”.

Stories of North Koreans gouging Americans for money were common in the 11-year period when the US and North Korea conducted “joint recovery operations”, until then-president George W. Bush decided enough was enough in 2005.

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Bruce Bechtol, a former Defence Intelligence Agency analyst, recalls the leader of one of the US search teams complaining that “the North Koreans want money for everything”. There were even reports of North Koreans hoarding what were purported to be remains in the hope of profiting from their “discovery”.

The fear at the time was that the North Koreans would hold Americans hostage as relations deteriorated after the 2002 breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which the North had locked up its nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon complex and stopped making nuclear warheads with plutonium at their core.

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Exposed for ordering a separate secret programme for making warheads with highly enriched uranium, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of 2002.

Then, in early 2003, he withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation agreement while his physicists and engineers geared up for the North’s first nuclear test in October 2006.

Trump’s giveaways to North Korea highlight the US’ diminishing global presence

As the US and the North resume joint recovery efforts, we may be sure the North Koreans will ask for large sums of money without doing a thing about denuclearisation. However, the North’s long-running campaign for a peace treaty takes higher priority than money, in the view of former US diplomat Mark Fitzpatrick.

Sure, joint recovery operations will provide a steady revenue, he says, but they see engagement with the US as leading to talks on a peace treaty.

Watch: Families of US soldiers missing since Korean war hope Trump-Kim talks will bring loved ones home

Kim Tae-woo, former director of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, notes the North Koreans, focusing on remains, have succeeded in getting the Americans to overlook human rights. “They see everything from the viewpoint of leverage,” he said, while pushing for a “declaration of the end of the Korean war”. In the meantime, “we have seen nothing about a timetable” for denuclearisation.

Many years after they died in obscure battles, the legacy of those American soldiers, airmen and marines “missing in action” endures in a new chapter in the struggle for control of the Korean peninsula.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea