The Korean War veterans who never came home


The mission came with hope and uncertainty. Kim Jong Un, the volatile leader of North Korea, had agreed to turn over the remains of U.S. troops killed decades earlier in the Korean War, and a lone Air Force C-17 was dispatched to recover them.

When the giant cargo plane touched down at a coastal airstrip in Wonson, hours east of Pyongyang, Maj. Gen. Michael A. Minihan, the ranking U.S. military officer on board, directed his team to follow their North Korean counterparts inside a terminal. There, set out in neat rows, lay 55 boxes. A careful cataloguing was performed, and a formal transfer of control was made.

The two sides discussed “the possibility of future operations,” Minihan recalled in a recent interview. After a polite goodbye, he said, the Americans “took off as quick as we could.”

“We felt,” the general added, “as though we really had a big win.”

That was five years ago Thursday — the same date, now 70 years in the past, when an armistice agreement paused the savage fighting that left 5 million people dead, but left an icy détente that endures to this day. There have been no U.S. recovery operations in North Korea since, and those most familiar with the U.S. government’s continued outreach to Pyongyang say there is “no discernible opening ahead.”

Minihan, now a four-star general, became emotional discussing how he and the repatriation team sent to Wonson handled the remains with care and reverence. They draped each of the cases in the flag of the United Nations Command, the international military force established to safeguard South Korea after the armistice, in the event some of the remains inside were not American.

On the flight back to Osan Air Base in South Korea, the C-17 was met at the border and accompanied by a ceremonial escort of F-16 fighter jets. Once on the ground, the crew was greeted by cheers.

The historic moment was a remarkable political victory for the president then, Donald Trump, and it signaled hope that the two nations could work together again on repatriating America’s war dead despite their litany of disagreements and long history of distrust.

The recovery flight followed a pact between Kim and Trump, brokered the previous month at a high-stakes summit in Singapore, to establish “new” relations. Trump agreed to suspend joint military exercises with America’s longtime ally South Korea and left open the possibility of additional negotiations.

Any sense of excitement was short-lived, however.

North Korea has not responded to U.S. outreach about the recovery of additional remains since March 2019, as negotiations between the Trump administration and Kim’s regime faltered, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. Old tensions quickly festered, and North Korea pressed on with the development of its nuclear weapons program, leveling threats against South Korea and other U.S. partners in the region.

“What’s disappointing to the families, as you can imagine, is what starts off with high hopes for answers that they’ve longed for, for decades, came across as a quick thud and another punch to the stomach,” said Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense Department agency leading U.S. efforts to recover those deemed prisoners of war or missing in action. “You know, dangle the carrot — and then pull the carrot away.”

More than 36,000 American troops were killed during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 until 1953. More than 7,700 U.S. personnel are listed as missing in action from the conflict, including an estimated 5,200 believed to be in North Korea, McKeague said. Some were buried by U.S. troops in makeshift cemeteries that were abandoned after China’s entry into the war forced U.S. forces south. Others are believed to be at the sites of aircraft crashes or possibly in warehouses that the North Korean military maintains.

Daniel Russel, who handled North Korea issues during the Obama administration, said there is “no discernible opening ahead” for their recovery. In the past, he said, Pyongyang was receptive to having U.S. teams enter North Korea with approval, seeking cash in exchange for the remains. U.S. officials resisted paying directly but sometimes compensated North Korea for its efforts in other ways until 2005, when the United States ended the missions out of concern for the safety of participating Americans.

“My own prediction,” Russel said, “would be that if and when North Korea shifts gears and wants to negotiate with the United States, it’s not going to want to negotiate denuclearization, and it’s not going to want to negotiate remains return. It’s going to want to negotiate the exit of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. I wouldn’t expect those talks to go very far.”

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, said that the Biden administration has attempted “on numerous occasions” to have dialogue with North Korean officials on the issue and that “time and again” they decline. The United States, the official said, stands ready to open lines of communication with North Korea “at any time and without preconditions.”

The stalemate continues as North Korea carries out menacing ballistic missile tests and issues doomsday proclamations in response to displays of unity by the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

This month, two U.S. submarines have visited South Korean ports, and the United States has wrangled with the disappearance of Pvt. Travis King, an American soldier who willfully crossed into North Korea on July 18, Pentagon officials said. Allied military personnel have acknowledged broaching the subject with North Korea, but there is no sense for whether or how King may be recovered.

Robert B. Abrams, who commanded U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula before retiring in 2021, said that as he took the assignment in November 2018, discussions were ongoing between U.S. and North Korean officials about more repatriation. Pyongyang pulled back after a follow-up summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February 2019, after the United States declined to meet North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

“That’s kind of the end of the story — which is regrettable,” Abrams said. “In my opinion, repatriation was one of the casualties of the Hanoi summit.”

The legacy of the last recovery, now known as the “K-55 remains,” is still revealing itself.

The 55 boxes transferred at Wonson contained 501 individual bones now associated with 250 people, 88 of whom have been identified so far through DNA and other scientific means, McKeague said. Among the remains were those of a South Korean, which will be returned to Seoul this week to coincide with the armistice anniversary.

The Defense Department continues to work through other U.S. remains associated with the Korean War, including some recovered in earlier encounters with North Korea and others belonging to unknown soldiers who were disinterred after being buried in Honolulu at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Among those subsequently identified in Hawaii were two Medal of Honor recipients killed in North Korea: Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain under consideration by the Catholic Church for sainthood, and Luther Story, who was identified this year and laid to rest on Memorial Day in his home state of Georgia.

In western Maryland, the family of Sgt. Roy C. DeLauter learned last year that his remains were among those recovered in the batch turned over five years ago. DeLauter was 21 when his unit was ambushed on the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir in late 1950, after Chinese forces had intervened.

Marjorie Sharlene DeLauter, of Smithsburg, Md., was 3 years old when her father went missing. Now in her 70s, she said that, as a child, she often wondered where her father was and sometimes watched clips of the Korean War in hopes she might see him. It was especially difficult, she said, hearing childhood friends talk about their own fathers.

“I really missed not having a dad, although my mom remarried,” DeLauter said. “I felt left out.”

DeLauter, a retired nurse, said her family had submitted DNA samples to the Army years ago in hopes that they might someday help identify him. She has encouraged other families in similar circumstances to have family DNA on file to help the military identify remains they receive.

Other families are still hoping for a miracle.

Rick Downes, whose father, Hal, went missing during an air mission over North Korea in January 1952, said the prospect five years ago of more repatriation was exciting. Recent silence in Washington has been “deafening,” he said, and he urges both the Biden administration and members of Congress to raise the issue publicly more frequently.

“It was heartbreaking to go from so much hope,” Downes said. He called the uncertainty about his own father, a “wound that won’t heal.”



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