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Mattis: US military might enter North Korea to search for US remains

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Mar. 20, 2018. (U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense)
July 27, 2018

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spoke before press on Friday after the remains of 55 troops believed to be U.S. service members were returned to U.S. custody by North Korea. He said that efforts to retrieve additional remains will continue, including the possibility of the U.S. entering North Korea for assistance.

Outside the Pentagon, a reporter asked Mattis if there were plans for U.S. military personnel to enter North Korea for search missions to find additional U.S. troops’ remains.

“That is certainly under consideration. Absolutely,” Mattis replied, according to Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin, who posted to Twitter.

From the mid-1990s until 2005, 33 recovery operations were carried out by joint teams, which led to the collection of 229 U.S. troops’ remains. Those efforts were halted in 2005 over North Korea’s growing nuclearization efforts, and concerns over U.S. officials’ security.

“It’s certainly something we’re interested in exploring with the North Koreans,” Mattis said, according to Stars and Stripes. “We look at it as a first step of a restored process, so we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home – perhaps have our own teams go in.”

Mattis said joint search operations with North Korea is a long-term goal, but requires further talks and planning. He said that Friday’s return of the 55 remains served as an important step toward improving relations with North Korea.

“It was a coordination effort over the last month to determine where they would deliver the remains to, where our plane would fly in, where they would be taken to for the initial review,” Mattis said.

“So all of that went well and I think when you have that sort of communication going on it sets a positive environment, a positive tone, for other things, more important things in terms of international diplomacy, but this humanitarian act is obviously a step in the right direction,” he added.

At the Singapore summit held in June, President Trump and Kim Jong Un reached an agreement to return U.S. troops killed in North Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Approximately 7,700 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for, with about 5,300 believed to be in North Korea.

“We have families that … never had closure,” Mattis said. “They never went out and had the bodies returned. So, what we’re seeing here is an opportunity to give those families closure to make certain that we continue to look for those remaining.”

The remains were exchanged Friday at Kalma Airport in northeast North Korea. They were loaded onto a U.S. military transport plane, then flown to Osan Air Base in South Korea. The remains in small, flag-draped cases were then transferred onto vans for transport to facilities.

The remains will stay in South Korea for the next several days while officials conduct initial inspections. Next week, a formal repatriation ceremony is expected to take place before the remains travel to Hawaii for further testing and identification.