WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. military personnel will travel to North Korea in March to restart efforts to recover thousands of servicemen missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, the Defense Department said Thursday.
The U.S. and North Korean militaries agreed last October to restart recovery operations in what was seen a sign of easing tensions between the wartime enemies, but they did not announce a date.
A letter from Republican Sen. Richard Lugar to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, however, notes that the agreement sets a March 1 start date. His Jan. 17 letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department’s POW/Missing Personnel Office, confirmed by email Thursday the North’s military will begin preparations March 1 for the arrival later that month of a small U.S. advance team that will evaluate conditions and prepare for operations.
The Dec. 17 death of North Korea’s longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, and the succession of his untested younger son, Kim Jong Un, has led to a pause in U.S.-North Korean talks on its nuclear program and a possible resumption of U.S. food aid.
The Defense Department has described the recovery of war remains as a “stand-alone humanitarian matter not tied to any other issue between the two countries.”
The Pentagon estimates 5,500 U.S. servicemen are unaccounted for on North Korean soil. The administration of President George W. Bush suspended recovery operations in 2005 amid rising tensions with North Korea. The Americans said they were worried about the safety of U.S. recovery teams in the country.
Joint recovery missions began in 1996 and are the only form of U.S.-North Korean military cooperation. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations. The Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, so the conflict never formally ended. Some 28,000 American troops remain based in South Korea.
U.S. veterans organizations have long advocated an aggressive U.S. effort to recover remains from the war. Many U.S. war dead were left behind when Chinese forces overran U.S. positions in North Korea in late 1950. Most veterans are now in their 80s, and the chances of any survivors inside North Korea appear slim.
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that North Korean officials have an extensive set of information and records related to the war and Americans who served.
“Press for the full story about those American service personnel and for the release of any who may remain alive,” he wrote to Panetta.
The Defense Department periodically confirms the identity of missing U.S. service members based on documents and remains previously supplied by North Korea.