The United States and North Korea are resuming the joint search for U.S. soldiers still missing from the Korean War, one of the few positive areas of interaction between two countries estranged for more than 60 years.
The announcement last week by the Pentagon came before two days of U.S.-North Korea talks in Geneva over a much more intractable issue – North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons – and could be part of a tentative thaw following years of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said at the conclusion of the Geneva talks Tuesday that the tone was “positive and generally constructive…We narrowed differences in terms of what has to be done before we can both agree to a resumption of the formal negotiations.”
There are still major questions over whether North Korea, which carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2008, will relinquish a remaining stockpile of plutonium as well as a uranium enrichment programme that provides another pathway to bombs.
The decision to resume the search for MIAs appears to have been much less complicated. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Robert J. Newberry led a team that reached a deal with North Korea after three days of talks last week in Bangkok.
Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for Newberry’s office, told IPS that operations will resume next spring and that four missions are planned.
They will take place in Unsan County and near the Chosin Reservoir, the scene of a ferocious battle in late 1950 in which more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines died, along with thousands of U.S. allied troops, North Koreans and Chinese. China intervened in Korea after U.S.-led forces, commanded by Gen. Douglas McArthur, crossed the 38th parallel in a disastrously ill-conceived attempt to stamp out communism on the peninsula.
The 1950-53 conflict began when North Korean soldiers invaded the south and overran South Korean and American troops. U.S.-led forces staged a daring landing at Inchon and forced the North Koreans back, but the war ended in a stalemate with no formal peace treaty, just an armistice. The U.S. and North Korea still have no formal diplomatic ties.
Relations improved during the Bill Clinton administration, which signed a 1994 agreement with North Korea promising civilian nuclear reactors, other energy assistance and eventual diplomatic relations in return for North Korea ending a nuclear weapons programme based on plutonium. The George W. Bush administration scrapped the accord in 2003 after North Korea admitted that it had started a separate effort to enrich uranium.
The MIA recovery efforts continued for another two years before then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shut them down. U.S. officials said at the time that they were scrapping the missions because they feared for the safety of U.S. personnel. However, a Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, told this reporter in 2005 that North Korea’s refusal to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear programme was a factor.
Frank Metersky, a former Marine and veteran of the Korean War who has worked on MIA issues with North Korea for more than two decades, told IPS that the previous missions had all gone smoothly and that the Bush administration cancelled the programme in 2005 under “false pretenses”.
Maj. Parker said the U.S. regarded the MIA recovery efforts as a “humanitarian issue” separate from other U.S. concerns about North Korea.
North Korea is likely to have a different interpretation, especially since the operations include undisclosed hard currency payments to Pyongyang and follow a U.S. decision to resume limited food aid to North Korea’s perennially starving people.
It remains unclear whether the gestures are a harbinger of a broader reduction in tensions.
Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS that “things seem to be settling down” in North Korea after a bumpy few years that began when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered a massive stroke in 2008. While in the process of installing Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, as his designated successor, the North Korean regime carried out a series of provocations, including a second nuclear test, missile launches, sinking a South Korean ship and attacking a South Korean island.
Now, the emphasis appears to be on shoring up the system in advance of celebrations planned next year around the 100th year of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea’s communist system and dynasty.
“At the moment, the succession process is stable and Kim Jong Il seems in better health,” Snyder said, noting recent visits by the North Korean leader to China and Russia.
Both these countries appear to be pushing North Korea to resume nuclear talks. Russia wants to build a pipeline through North Korea to ship natural gas to a booming South Korea, while China, in the throes of its own political succession, would like a trouble-free Korean peninsula for a change.
Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration, which in the past put little priority on resuming ties with North Korea, is replacing its part-time special envoy, Bosworth, with a full-time career diplomat, Glyn Davies.
Metersky, 79, who met a North Korean diplomat for the first time in 1985, long before any U.S. government official, said persistence is the key to success with difficult countries like North Korea.
“Unless you sit across from North Koreans, you never find out what they are really about,” he said. “You just can’t sit down for a talk and then go away.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and member of its Iran Task Force, former senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and former Mideast correspondent for The Economist. This article originally appeared on IPSNews.net. .