United States negotiators were left cooling their heels at the DMZ on Thursday, as North Korean officials failed to show up for a scheduled meeting on plans to return the bodies of soldiers missing since the Korean War. The North Korean no-show follows Kim Jong Un skipping scheduled talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit a potato farm. Overall, North Korean actions seem determined to belittle the United States and slow down the progress of any agreement.
“We were ready,” the [U.S.] official said. “It just didn’t happen. They didn’t show.”
According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, after North Korea missed the appointment, the United States passed a message through the United Nations Military Armistice Commission, which put in a phone call to North Korea. North Korean officials then claimed that they didn’t appear for the meeting because it wasn’t at the right “level,” and if America wanted talks to resume, they should send in military generals to talk to their North Korean counterparts.
Agreeing to meet one on one at this level would, like the Singapore mini-summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, represent greater international acceptance of the North Korean regime. Since the end of military operations on the Korean peninsula, the United States has restricted talks at the DMZ to lower-level officers. The last time an American general visited the site was in 2009 when the US negotiated with North Korea in six-party talks that included Japan, China, and Russia along with South Korea.
This is not the first time North Korea has stood the United States up over this issue. In advance of the Singapore meeting, North Korean officials did not appear for a planning session on the repatriation of remains. However, this was not allowed to derail the brief summit.
Both before and after his talks with Kim, Trump repeatedly, and improbably, reported that the parents of missing Korean War soldiers had talked to him about the possible return of their bodies. Since the Korean War ended sixty-five years ago, the parents of any soldiers would certainly be over 100, and it seems unlikely that Trump has visited any such centenarian Gold Star families, much less the “thousands” that he has claimed. But that’s not Trump’s only lie about this painful issue.
Trump told a crowd of supporters a week later that the remains of 200 Americans “have been sent back.” Military officials later denied that, but told reporters that they expected the remains to arrive within days and had made prearrangements for their arrival, such as storing caskets at the DMZ.
No remains have been sent.
The repatriation of remains was one of several points that Trump claimed as a “win” following the Singapore meeting. He has used the point at each of his recent rallies, reporting how he is finally getting these fallen service members home to their families, something “no one else” could accomplish.
Trump has also insisted that no one else even tried, but actually, negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the return of several hundred sets of remains. However, these returns were halted in 2005 during the six-party talks and have not resumed.
The talks in 2005, actually ended with an agreement by North Korea to end all missile and nuclear weapon development. Following rounds of the talks built up a series of steps that should be followed to lead to the complete dismantling of the North Korea nuclear program. However, the ongoing talks collapsed in 2009 when North Korea violated agreements by launching a missile and failed to agree to a system of verification. Those talks progressed much farther than the vague statement that was signed by Trump and Kim, which is much less detailed and forceful than even the first agreement North Korea signed in 2005.
According to the New York Times, Pompeo left the most recent set of Kim-free talks in Pyongyang without any agreement “to take specific steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program.” North Korean officials have complained that the approach of the Trump White House was “gangster-like” and that demands were unreasonable. It’s not clear if the no-show at the DMZ is related to how the Pompeo talks ended, or whether it is part of a more general plan to demand more high-level attention for North Korea.