HONG, KONG / SEOUL – North Korean officials didn’t show up Thursday for a planned meeting with U.S. counterparts to discuss returning the remains of American war dead, South Korean media reported, in the latest sign of tensions between the two sides.
U.S. negotiators arrived at the militarized border between the two Koreas, as had previously been announced by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and were kept waiting, the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing diplomatic officials it did not identify. The meeting had been expected to be the first working-level talks between the two sides since Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang ended Saturday with North Korea denouncing the U.S.’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”
A spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea referred questions Thursday to the Department of Defense in Washington. The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday. Pompeo had said when announcing the talks that the meeting could “move by one day or two.”
While the details are unclear, a failure to meet on the issue wouldn’t bode well for broader negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear program. The discussions, about returning Americans soldiers killed almost 70 years ago, was perhaps the most tangible outcome from Pompeo’s trip, which analysts expected would at least secure the release of some remains.
The Department of Defense estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from some 5,300 American military personnel believed missing in the country. Their recovery has long been among the most emotionally charged issues between the two sides. Caskets that the U.S. shipped to the border last month haven’t been filled, despite Kim Jong Un’s pledge during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump to immediately repatriate identified remains.
That said, while recovering the war dead would provide Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three American detainees it would do little to advance the goal of dismantling the regime’s weapons program. The U.S. also risks giving the North Koreans leverage to drag out disarmament talks.
North Korea’s criticism of talks with Pompeo fueled further doubts about whether Trump will ever achieve his goal of “complete denuclearization,” much less on the timeline of one to 2-1/2 years set out by various administration officials. Although Pompeo called the meetings “productive,” North Korea said the lack of emphasis on security guarantees was “regretful.”
The war dead talks were expected to be led by military officials, not the diplomats who are handling nuclear negotiations. North Korea had said Saturday it was seeking the “earliest start of the working-level talks” on the recovery of U.S. remains.
Trump has expressed an eagerness to tout the recovery of the war dead, telling Fox News that Kim was “giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers.” He also told supporters in Nevada that North Korea had already handed over 200 sets of remains. Pompeo was obliged to correct those claims, telling a U.S. Senate committee June 27 that no exchanges have been made.