SEOUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - US and North Korean officials met on the inter-Korean border on Sunday (July 15) to discuss the return of remains of US soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
The repatriation of US remains was one of the agreements reached during an unprecedented summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June in Singapore.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled the plan for talks after visiting Pyongyang this month, touting it as one of key issues on which the two sides had made progress, though the North accused his delegation of making “gangster-like” demands in connection with denuclearisation during the trip.
Pompeo initially said the two sides had agreed to hold talks on US remains on Thursday but no North Korea representatives showed up on the border.
North Korea then proposed meeting US military officials on Sunday, US and South Korean officials have said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing South Korean government sources, said the negotiations had begun at the border village of Panmunjom in the so-called Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
Three vehicles of US forces in South Korea, flying UN flags, were spotted heading to the border earlier in the day, Yonhap said.
A UN Command (UNC) general would represent the US side and his counterpart is expected to be a military commander stationed in the DMZ, the news agency said.
A UNC official said he had no information to confirm the report, though preparations had been made for Sunday’s talks.
A US Embassy spokesman in Seoul was not available for comment. There was no report on North Korean state media about the meeting.
The US forces brought some 100 wooden coffins into the DMZ last month, which will be used to transport the remains, according to Yonhap.
At the Singapore summit, Kim Jong Un made a broad commitment to “work toward denuclearisation”, but fell short of details on how or when he would dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme, which it has pursued in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
Pompeo had hoped to “fill in” details on how to dismantle the North’s nuclear programme and recover the remains of US troops in his talks in Pyongyang this month.
He later said he had made progress on setting a timeline for North Korea’s denuclearisation.
Nevertheless, Trump on Thursday praised Kim, saying that "great progress" was being made in negotiations. In a Twitter post, Trump attached copies of a July 6 letter from Kim lauding the US leader's "energetic and extraordinary efforts" and expressing "invariable trust and confidence" in his ability to advance talks.
The letter's date suggested it was written before Pompeo's latest visit.
"It's a process," Trump said Friday during a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. "It's probably a longer process than anybody would like, but I'm used to long processes, too."
After the North Koreans failed to show up Thursday for the talks on war remains, which are being led by military officials, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North Koreans had called United Nations Command via a hotline that has not been used for five years and said they were unprepared to take part.
The country proposed holding a higher-level meeting than the working-level talks originally announced by Pompeo, Yonhap said, citing a diplomatic official it didn't identify.
Trump has expressed an eagerness to tout the war dead's recovery, telling Fox News that Kim was "giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers" and then, to supporters in Nevada, that North Korea had already handed over 200 sets of remains.
Pompeo was obliged to correct those claims, telling a US Senate committee June 27 that no exchanges have been made.
Efforts to recover the missing war dead date back to before the two sides formally stopped fighting. Joint efforts to find and identify US personnel between 1990 and 2005 recovered more than 300 sets of remains and were suspended as nuclear talks between the two sides deteriorated. North Korea last repatriated the remains of six individuals in 2007.
Obama administration attempts to restart discussions foundered as Kim accelerated his nuclear programme.
In 2014, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement blaming the US's "hostile policy" for ending the recovery missions and warning that the bodies of American soldiers were being "carried away en-masse" to make way for infrastructure improvements.
"Meeting to discuss the recovery and retrieval of remains is so crucial because it's low hanging fruit," said Christine Ahn, the founder Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilising to end the Korean War and reunite families.
"Hopefully, it's the beginning of a longer process that yields a peace agreement that ends the Korean War and rids the peninsula of nuclear weapons."