Remains of U.S. service members missing from fighting in North Korea soon may be headed to Hawaii for testing and identification as part of early steps following the historic June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said that in the past, North Korean officials indicated they had as many as 200 sets of remains recovered over the years.
The agency, with an $85 million lab and administrative offices at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, searches for, recovers and identifies U.S. personnel missing from past wars.
A commitment within the joint statement between Trump and Kim “would repatriate these (200) as was done in the early 1990s and would reinforce the humanitarian aspects of this mission,” DPAA said.
Lt. Col. Ken Hoffman, an agency spokesman, said, “All Korean War remains come to Hawaii for testing and identification. This is an evolving situation, and we will provide additional information when available.”
Past recoveries have included ceremonial repatriations at Hickam with flag-draped caskets and military pallbearers.
The agency also has a smaller lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
In addition to North Korea committing “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” both countries vowed to recover POW/MIA remains — including the “immediate repatriation” of those already identified by the North.
At a press conference in Singapore, the president said he had “countless calls and letters” asking about the return of Americans missing in North Korea from the 1950-53 war.
“They want the remains of their fathers and mothers and all of the people that got caught into that really brutal war,” he said.
Trump said he asked for the return of the missing Americans, “and we got it. That was a very last minute. The remains will be coming back. They’re going to start that process immediately.”
How that will be worked out remains to be seen. DPAA said 7,702 service members are unaccounted for from the war, with about 5,300 in North Korea.
From 1990 to 1994, North Korea turned over to the United States and the Hawaii lab 208 boxes of remains — representing more than 400 U.S. servicemen — that are known as “K-208.” A total of 181 service members so far have been accounted for from the group.
Identifications from the anticipated set of 200 remains likely will take years. It’s been more than a decade since North Korea turned over the remains of American troops missing from the Korean War, The Associated Press reported.
Paul M. Cole, a management consultant who worked at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command — the precursor to DPAA — and authored in 2012 a damning report on dysfunction within the organization, said North Korea “has returned degraded bones that are intensely commingled and have been stored for years.”
In one case with K-208, the remains consisted of one partial skull and multiple femurs with a plastic wallet-sized calendar from an insurance agency in New York that North Korea claimed was the individual’s ID card, Cole said.
The United States much prefers to send in its own recovery teams, and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducted 33 field recoveries in North Korea from 1996 through 2005, when the missions were suspended.
In April and May 2005, the United States feared that North Korea was planning another nuclear test. Amid safety concerns, the Hawaii team members were pulled out.
Cole said the Defense Department gave North Korea “tens of millions of dollars in cash plus dozens of SUVs, tons of fresh fish, millions of liters of gasoline and other supplies” for the access.
DPAA said the Pentagon is authorized “to pay fair and reasonable compensation for the efforts associated with recovering remains, but does not pay for remains or information.”
Should high level U.S.-North Korea negotiations result in renewed field operations, “subsequent planning and logistical discussions would be conducted to determine how they would be executed,” the agency said.
Trump also said he wanted to stop war games with South Korea — which some Hawaii-based troops and ships participate in — to save a “tremendous amount of money” and reduce provocations aimed at North Korea.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced it had suspended all planning for August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian war games “consistent with President Donald J. Trump’s commitment to North Korea and in concert with South Korea.”
Last year, about 17,500 American personnel took part in the U.S.-South Korea command and control exercise. “There is no impact on Pacific exercises outside of the Korean Peninsula,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said.
Trump said June 12 that Kim had told him that North Korea “is already destroying a major missile engine testing site.”
But in a subsequent review of satellite imagery, North Korean monitoring site 38 North concluded there were no changes to the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility or activity akin to dismantlement to any of the six known launch and engine test facilities and two ejection test stands.
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