A U.S. Air Force plane traveled into North Korea Friday to pick up 55 sets of remains and carry them to Osan Air Base in South Korea. A formal repatriation ceremony will be held there next week before the remains are flown to Hawaii for forensic testing.
Trump and Kim met in Singapore six weeks ago, signing a brief joint statement expressing a shared commitment to the goals of denuclearization, formally ending the Korean War, and recovering U.S. soldiers’ remains. Though Trump immediately touted it as proof the North Korean nuclear threat was extinguished, other administration officials have shown more trepidation about declaring victory.
At the time, critics warned that the agreement between Trump and Kim was extremely vague and contained little that North Korea has not agreed to previously only to later renege. The statement left unresolved how each side is defining denuclearization, a major sticking point that has held up negotiations in the past.
The repatriation of remains is the most significant result of the meeting to date. Catherine Killough, a Ploughshares Fund resident fellow, stressed there is no concrete deal on denuclearization for North Korea to comply with or violate at this point, but keeping this promise to Trump is a promising sign.
“Working-level talks to negotiate a roadmap for denuclearization are ongoing,” she said. “Until both sides can come to an agreement, we should welcome actions that North Korea takes to reduce tensions and sustain talks.”
Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow at Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at The Atlantic Council, observed that North Korea has sent animal remains and claimed they were soldiers before, so it will be important to confirm these are what Pyongyang says. If so, it would be a valuable good will gesture, but turning over warheads or missiles would have been a much clearer sign of intent to denuclearize. “It seems like they’re doing just enough to keep the hope for diplomacy and reduced tensions alive,” Kroenig said.
This would mark the first time in over a decade the U.S. and North Korea have worked together to recover the remains of American war dead. More than 30 searches were conducted between 1996 and 2005, resulting in the recovery of 229 sets of remains, but those efforts were halted amid rising tensions under President George W. Bush. Several additional sets of remains were obtained by former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson in 2007.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. believes remains of 5,300 more soldiers are still in North Korea somewhere. The remains currently being brought back were likely among more than 200 North Korea has been keeping in storage.
“For the nuclear issue writ large, it’s a symbolic step for sure,” said James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, of the repatriation. “This is something that’s been done in the past, typically when the U.S. and North Korea are talking.”
The repatriation of remains was the second positive development this week, following a report from monitoring group 38 North on Monday that North Korea appears to be dismantling facilities at its main launch site. Satellite images showed construction equipment at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station as parts of a rail-mounted processing building and rocket engine test stands were removed.
38 North analyst Joseph Bermudez Jr. described the activity as “a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea.” “If they did completely dismantle the site, it would be a step in the right direction, but it wouldn’t be a huge leap,” McKeon said. As long as North Korea still has warheads, ballistic missiles, and facilities to produce nuclear materials, the launch site is easily replaceable.
“Even if they did raze the entire property, it’s something that could be rebuilt in a relatively short period of time,” he said. Other recent reports have been less encouraging. Intelligence sources told NBC News and the Washington Post late last month that North Korea was believed to be increasing fuel production for nuclear weapons at secret facilities. Pompeo told senators Wednesday North Korea is still producing “fissile material,” but he refused to provide more details in a public setting.
“The pointy end of the spear, they continue to sharpen, but they’re turning over pieces of the handle,” Kroenig said. Diplomatic efforts have also stumbled. North Korean officials reportedly skipped one scheduled round of high-level talks, and a meeting that did occur in early July ended with the regime’s foreign ministry defiantly accusing Pompeo of making “unilateral and gangster-like” demands.
“In the last few months, we displayed maximum patience and watched the U.S. while initiating good-will steps as many as we can,” the North Korean statement said. “But, it seems that the U.S. misunderstood our goodwill and patience. The U.S. is fatally mistaken if it went to the extent of regarding that the DPRK would be compelled to accept, out of its patience, the demands reflecting its gangster-like mindset.”
The return of remains Friday coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ceased hostilities, but the Korean War technically never ended. Kim commemorated the date by laying a wreath at the Martyrs Cemetery of the Chinese People’s Volunteers.
North Korea has stepped up efforts to broker a treaty formally ending the conflict, which Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-In agreed to work toward achieving by the end of this year when they met in Panmunjom in April. However, the U.S. has been adamant that such concessions should only come after significant, verifiable steps toward denuclearization.
“That is something that makes a lot of sense as part of a final deal that includes verifiable denuclearization,” Kroenig said, but he added, “We’re not prepared to offer that without the denuclearization of North Korea.” According to McKeon, views vary widely among experts on how big of a deal a peace treaty would be, but there are other options short of that, such as reaffirming the existing armistice, that might be sufficient for the time being. “They would be symbolic, they wouldn’t be substantive necessarily, but it could be a sign of good faith,” he said.
Any movement toward normalization of relations risks loosening the maximum pressure campaign that has driven the regime to negotiate. The U.S. has already complained about Russia and China not enforcing sanctions on oil imports and the Trump administration has pushed back against their suggestion to lift some United Nations sanctions.
“What we have been seeing is certain countries wanting to do waivers, certain countries saying, ‘Let’s lift sanctions,’ certain countries wanting to do more,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said last week. “And what – I appreciate Secretary Pompeo coming up and what we continue to reiterate is we can’t do one thing until we see North Korea respond to their promise to denuclearize. We have to see some sort of action.”
Complications have already arisen due to increased economic activity between North and South Korea, with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa seeking an exemption for “inter-Korean cooperation” at the U.N. last Friday.
“It’s an open question how plans for inter-Korean economic projects would require the lifting of U.N. sanctions,” Killough said. “I certainly don’t think the spirit of ‘maximum pressure’ in the current phase of diplomacy and engagement is sustainable.”
Senate Republicans earlier this week urged patience and caution when dealing with North Korea, touting initial indications of progress but warning that Kim still cannot be trusted.
“In dealing with North Korea, you’ve got to deal with them at arms-length,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Wednesday. “You have to see what they want and not give anything up to them. See if they want to be part of a family of nations or they want to be estranged from everybody else in the world.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, accused the media of wanting to see Trump fail and overreacting to minor setbacks in a long process that is lumbering generally forward.
“I know right after the summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, the national media was just beside themselves declaring this wasn’t going to work,” he said. “Then of course it hit a speed bump a couple of weeks later and they said, ‘See, it won’t work.’ They need to be more patient.”
Democrats have remained highly skeptical since Singapore. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told CNN Wednesday that Pyongyang is “playing its normal game” of halting nuclear activity temporarily to obtain relief from economic sanctions.
“That type of freeze is the sort of thing they have done before with other administrations. Other administrations did actually get a detailed plan worked out,” he said.
Experts say it is too early to tell if Trump’s negotiations will be more successful than the deals reached by previous administrations.
“I don’t think enough has happened in six weeks to shift the public’s calculus of Kim’s intentions,” Killough said.
Kroenig is less optimistic than he was six weeks ago, in part because he feels there have been missed opportunities for Kim to demonstrate a serious commitment.
“If I had been in the room, I’d say, ‘Great, if you’re serious about this, show us you’re serious, turn over five nuclear weapons,’” he said.
Before concluding this time is different, McKeon will need to see irreversible, or much harder to reverse, measures like North Korea pouring concrete in the core of its nuclear reactors, verifiably destroying its missile stockpiles, and dismantling the factories and infrastructure needed to make more. Until North Korea at least halts production of fissile materials and allows international inspectors to come in and confirm its progress, doubts will inevitably remain.
“That would be a serious step where I would step back and say, ‘Wow, maybe they are serious this time,’” McKeon said.