SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. military officials met with their North Korean counterparts Sunday to discuss the repatriation of the remains of soldiers left after the Korean War ended in 1953.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the encounter said the meeting at the peninsula’s demilitarized zone was “productive.”
Although some details for the transfer of the remains still had to be worked out, there was some agreement about how an initial transfer of remains would proceed, said the official, who was not authorized to speak about the meeting publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Sunday’s talks came three days after North Korean officials failed to attend a scheduled meeting about the remains, leaving their U.S. counterparts waiting at the demilitarized zone’s Joint Security Area. The State Department later said the North Korean side had been in contact at midday to cancel that meeting Thursday and had suggested rescheduling to Sunday.
Yonhap News reported that three U.S. Forces Korea vehicles were seen driving over the Tongil Bridge and entering the DMZ about 8:20 a.m.
The U.S. delegation was led by Maj. Gen. Michael A. Minihan, chief of staff for the U.N. Command, and North Korea’s side included a two-star general, the South Korean news agency reported, citing diplomatic sources. The multinational but U.S.-led U.N. Command was formed during the Korean War and now helps maintain the armistice on the peninsula.
The meeting was the first at a general-level with North Korea since March 2009. “The North Koreans put a lot of weight on rank and status,” said Robert Kelly, a political scientist at South Korea’s Pusan National University. “Getting a general symbolizes the importance of negotiating with the North.”
When President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met June 12 in Singapore, they agreed to restart the repatriation process and both signed a statement promising the “immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
A week later, Trump inaccurately told a crowd of supporters that 200 Americans’ remains “have been sent back.” Military officials later denied this but said they were on alert for the transfer of remains, with prearrangements made — including the storage of 100 caskets at the DMZ.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang on July 6 and 7 in a bid to make progress on U.S.-North Korea talks. His visit was widely expected to coincide with the transfer of some of the remains, but none were moved at that time.
After Pompeo left North Korea, the country’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that called the U.S. negotiating stance “regrettable” and criticized the focus on denuclearization.
Thousands of Americans were left in Korea either missing in action or as prisoners after the war ended. The United States and North Korea have engaged before in sustained diplomacy to bring back remains, but the process has often been fraught with practical difficulties and mistrust.
As diplomatic tensions rose between the two countries, transfers of remains were halted in 2005 during the administration of President George W. Bush.
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