The Korea Herald


US asked China about trilateral troop remain recovery with S. Korea: DPAA chief

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 09:33

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DPAA director Kelly McKeague (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency ) DPAA director Kelly McKeague (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency )

The United States has sounded China out about the possibility of a trilateral project to excavate and recover the remains of troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, a senior US official said Tuesday, raising the prospects for three-way humanitarian cooperation despite hardening Sino-US rivalry.

Speaking in a virtual press meeting, Kelly McKeague, the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said that he asked a visiting senior Chinese official about the matter last month, as Washington has explored areas of bilateral cooperation under an effort to "de-risk" its fraught ties with Beijing.

POW and MIA stand for prisoners of war and missing in action, respectively.

"When I met with the PRC senior official when they visited the Pentagon in January, I asked about the fact ... would the PLA be interested in a trilateral cooperation with MAKRI (and) with DPAA?" he said.

PRC and PLA stand for China's official name and its military, the People's Republic of China and the People's Liberation Army. MAKRI is the acronym of South Korea's excavation agency, the Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA (killed in action) Recovery and Identification.

"He said we would consider it. So again, it's something in its nascent stage," the director added, stressing that the humanitarian issue should not be subject to "geopolitical tensions or the political climate."

McKeague pointed out that as Washington and Beijing have reestablished bilateral cooperation, the US believes there might be "some trilateral opportunities."

He was referring to recent improvement in Sino-US relations that emerged after US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a November summit in California, where they agreed to resume military communications that were suspended after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August in 2022.

Shortly after the summit, the DPAA had a virtual dialogue with the Chinese military, which led to the agency's field survey in China last month in search of three missing Americans from World War II, according to McKeague. It marked the resumption of such cooperation after pandemic-driven disruptions and political tensions.

"President Xi in his meeting with President Biden (in California) actually raised this issue as a means to again establish communications, rapport and more importantly people-to-people ties," he said.

As cooperation with China becomes sustainable, the US may ask China over the resumption of recovery cooperation with the North, the director noted.

Touching on North Korea, the director expressed a "strong" desire to reengage with the reclusive regime on the recovery of troop remains, while highlighting what he termed the "success" of a joint excavation between the US and the North from 1996-2005.

"We have a strong desire simply because there are 5,300 Americans missing inside North Korea. They've been there as you know over 70 years, and their families -- many of whom are aging, many of whom are daughters and sons -- await answers," he said. "There is a strong desire on the part of the United States to resume cooperation on this humanitarian mission." (Yonhap)

Since the last project that ended in 2005, there have been two unilateral turnovers of American troop remains to the US -- one aided by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007 and the other by former President Donald Trump through his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in 2018.

But US excavation staff have never been able to return to the North for onsite work since 2005, the official said.

In 2018, the US had two in-person meetings with the North's Korean People's Army at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, where the US made a proposal for two teams to operate in the North four times a year in a joint excavation project to proceed in Unsan, North Pyongan Province and in Jangjin, South Hamgyong Province.

"There was no acceptance of that proposal," he recalled. "In September of 2018, we exchanged letters, we had phone calls and then the last communication was in March of 2019."

The DPAA chief pointed out that his agency sees the possibility of an opening to engage with North Korea through cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). DPAA has worked with 115 private partners, including NGOs, universities and other institutions.

He also said that right before COVID-19, the State Department awarded Gov. Richardson's foundation access to the North for its pursuit of a humanitarian project in the North despite biting sanctions against Pyongyang.

"We believe that given the humanitarian aspect, this NGO, if allowed by DPRK, would not meet with any resistance from the Department of State or trip any sanctions or restrictions that are currently in place," he said. DPRK stands for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Casting Seoul's MAKRI as his agency's "most accomplished, professional and robust" partner among its 45 partners across the world, McKeague said that the South Korean agency and DPAA will co-host the "Scientific Summit" for the first time in Seoul from June 10-14. The forum is a gathering of scientists in the archeological and anthropological field from 15 nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

In his closing remarks, he underscored the humanitarian nature of the excavation work, which he said when successful, would provide "great closure" to bereaved families after decades of uncertainty.

"It is one that should not be subject to the whims of politics. It should not be one subject to geopolitical tensions," he said. (Yonhap)