SEOUL — North Korean officials did not turn up to a Thursday meeting with the U.S. military about repatriating the remains of the war dead, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the situation.
The two sides had been expected to meet at the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone and discuss the return of U.S. troop remains from the 1950-1953 war — an arrangement that the State Department had announced after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang last Friday and Saturday.
State Department officials had said that the meeting would likely take place on July 12, though they added that the date could shift.
On Thursday, however, Department of Defense and United Nations Command officials were left waiting in the DMZ’s Joint Security Area. The expected North Korean officials never arrived, according to the official who requested anonymity as he was not permitted to talk publicly about the event.
“We were ready,” the official said. “It just didn’t happen. They didn’t show.”
It was not immediately clear why North Korean officials had not attended the meeting or whether they had ever confirmed their intention to. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Ahead of the summit in Singapore, North Korean officials had failed to attend a planning meeting with their U.S. counterparts, causing tension between the two negotiating partners.
The repatriation of the remains of U.S. soldiers from North Korea has been a major issue between Washington and Pyongyang since the end of the Korean War, when thousands of Americans were left in Korea either missing in action or as prisoners of war.
Hundreds of remains have been repatriated since 1990, but the process has been fraught with mistrust. The transfer of remains between North Korea and the United States has not taken place since 2005.
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had pledged to recover more American remains when they met in Singapore on June 12. A statement signed by both leaders promised the “immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
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.
Since the summit in Singapore, there has been increasing scrutiny of the agreement reached by Trump and Kim, with some experts suggesting that North Korea did not really intend to give up its nuclear weapons.
Pompeo had visited Pyongyang last week in a bid to ease any misunderstandings between the two parties and find areas where they could make progress. Though the secretary of state described the talks as “productive” after they concluded, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry later released a statement that criticized the “regrettable” U.S. negotiating style.
Speaking in Singapore on Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that North Korea’s statement was a “strategy that can often be seen in negotiations.” Moon also said that Pompeo’s visit had showed that both Pyongyang and Washington had the same view of denuclearization, according to his spokesman Yoon Young-chan.
The South Korean government is “constantly in contact with its U.S. counterpart” about progress of the talks on war remains repatriation, said Roh Kyu-deok, a spokesman for South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, but it declined to comment on any details about the issue.
According to estimates from the Pentagon, 7,700 U.S. troops are still unaccounted for from the Korean War. 5,300 of that number are believed to have been killed north of the 38th parallel, which marks the border between the two Koreas.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.