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.