The Meaning of North Korea’s Remains Transfer

The Korean War never officially ended. But its participants are now chipping away at the last sources of hostility.

A soldier carries a casket containing the remains of a U.S. soldier who was killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in South Korea on July 27 (Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters)

On this very date in 1953, leaders of North Korean, Chinese, and U.S.-led United Nations forces signed an armistice to halt the Korean War, vowing to convene another conference within three months to achieve “the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.” Sixty-five years later, we’re still waiting on that settlement. But on Friday, the long shadow of the war got a little bit smaller.

North Korea’s return of what it says are the remains of 55 American soldiers killed during the Korean War is, as President Donald Trump has noted, most meaningful for the families of the fallen. It is also important as a trust-building measure in talks over the North Korean nuclear-weapons program, since one of the commitments Trump and Kim Jong Un made during their Singapore summit was to jointly recover the remains of the thousands of American service members unaccounted for from that conflict. More broadly, however, it is a small but significant step in redressing the roots of why the United States and North Korea deeply distrust each other—a war that never really ended. A bigger step would be something that the two Koreas and the United States have all expressed interest in, and that South Korean officials have told me could occur before the end of this year: a formal declaration by the three parties to end the Korean War, which would launch negotiations to replace the armistice with a peace treaty once North Korea gives up nuclear weapons.

It’s true that, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself acknowledged during a Senate hearing this week, the return of the remains does not directly advance the cause of removing North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The Korea expert Victor Cha recently noted that in one sense it may be counterproductive, since the North Koreans may demand U.S. funding for further recovery operations and the money would likely make its way to the North Korean military.

Nevertheless, returning remains isn’t wholly unrelated to the denuclearization process either. To begin with, as the White House hinted in announcing the repatriation of some remains on Friday, the next phase could involve U.S. authorities joining North Korean authorities in North Korea to search for the remains of U.S. soldiers that have yet to be found. Frank Jannuzi, who was involved in a previous U.S. government effort in the early 2000s to recover U.S. service members’ remains from North Korea, has observed that these joint operations not only cultivated trust between Washington and Pyongyang, but also yielded rare insights about America’s most inscrutable adversary.

“For almost 10 years, we had dozens of American soldiers working inside North Korea alongside North Korean army soldiers digging for the remains of our soldiers,” Jannuzi noted in June. “Let’s just say that it’s not a bad thing to have three or four dozen American soldiers on the ground inside North Korea on a yearly basis. Their eyes are open. Their ears are open. They learn things.”

One reason this latest round of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is distinct from previous, ultimately unsuccessful rounds is that the parties are seeking to simultaneously make progress on rolling back North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and establish new diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States. “The difficult goal of denuclearization will be impossible to achieve unless supported by mutual trust,” Cho Yoon Je, the South Korean ambassador to the United States, told me earlier this month. And here too, the return of remains could be helpful. In the 1990s, the repatriation of American soldiers who died during the Vietnam War played a pivotal role in Bill Clinton’s decision to lift a trade embargo against and later normalize relations with Vietnam.

“I know for a fact that the North Koreans have studied [the U.S.–Vietnam] normalization process,” Jannuzi said in June. “They know the importance of getting American veterans and the American military supportive of a process of a peace. So I think this issue has significance that might be greater than at first meets the eye.”

“What we’re seeing is a process that’s beginning to move forward after years of hostility where there are confidence-building measures being taken on both sides that are limited—because, after all, we’re trying to build confidence, right?” the Korea expert Joel Wit told me earlier this week. We spoke after his website 38 North reported that North Korea was beginning to dismantle structures at a satellite-launch site that Kim Jong Un had promised Trump he would destroy.

Wit acknowledged that the satellite site hasn’t yet been rendered inoperable, but added that if it eventually is, North Korea would be making a serious concession: eliminating its capacity to develop ballistic-missile technology through a space program to which it has devoted substantial resources. He conceded that the North appears to be proceeding with certain aspects of its nuclear-weapons development even as it negotiates with the United States over its program, but noted that when he was engaged in nuclear arms-reduction talks with Russia as a State Department official neither side ceased its nuclear activities in the lead-up to an accord. “Every country continues to build until the ink is dry on an agreement,” he said.

“We are seeing things happen that we never would have predicted would happen at the end of last year,” Wit continued. “Does that mean … it’s peace in our time? No, it doesn’t mean that. There’s a lot more that needs to happen.” What the U.S. government is doing at the moment is not denuclearizing North Korea, but probing whether North Korea will denuclearize, Wit explained. Ascertaining whether Kim Jong Un is really prepared to give up his nuclear weapons is “like trying to determine the [precise] value of pi,” he told me. “You’re not going to know. So what you have to do is test the proposition.” North Korea’s return this week of the remains of American soldiers is one test among many to come.