The Denver Post

Trump raises hopes, says North Korea is returning U.S. remains

- By Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Pennington Evan Vucci, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON» It has been more than a decade since North Korea last turned over the remains of American troops missing from the Korean War.

So President Donald Trump’s suggestion Friday that Pyongyang has begun delivering remains to the U.S. raised the hopes of families who have sought closure for more than 60 years.

Still, they’ve been on this roller coaster before, so they are hedging their bets. And U.S. officials across the government quietly acknowledg­ed that so far no remains have been turned over to the U.S. from the North since Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As of Friday, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency had not received any new remains, according to spokesman Chuck Pritchard. The last time North Korea turned over remains was in 2007, when Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and New Mexico governor, secured the return of six sets from North Korea.

There are 7,697 U.S. troops still unaccounte­d for from the Korean War, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.

Speaking with Fox News on the North Lawn of the White House, Trump said, “They are already starting to produce the remains of these great young soldiers who were left in North Korea. We’re getting the remains, and nobody thought that was possible.”

Trump also appeared to exaggerate the number of those that could be retrieved from North Korea. He said that Kim is “giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers,” adding that the North Koreans “know where many of these bodies are.”

Keen to talk up the most important diplomacy of his presidency, Trump has made questionab­le assertions about how the summit in Singapore has transforme­d relations with Pyongyang. He has said it no longer poses a nuclear threat, although the meeting produced no details on how or when weapons might be eliminated or even reduced.

On Friday, Trump pushed back against those who criticized him for meeting Kim, asserting: “If you don’t agree to meet, you know what you’re going to have? You’re going to have nuclear war.” But in a sign of how his unpreceden­ted meeting with the North Korean leader could change hostile ties, he said that now he can call Kim on the phone. “I gave him a very direct number. He can now call me if he has any difficulty. I can call him,” Trump said.

Richard Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, expressed excitement and approval at how Trump had raised the MIA issue with Kim and gotten a commitment to return remains. His airman father, Lt. Hal Downes, has been missingin-action since his plane went down over North Korea in 1952.

Downes, who visited North Korea in 2016, said he has since been told the North may have the remains of more than 200 American service members that likely were recovered from land during farming or constructi­on and could be returned easily.

“It’s exciting; it’s special,” he said about Trump’s comments. “But it’s just words right now. Now, some action has to be taken.”

Over the decades, accounting for U.S. service members from the 1950-1953 Korean War has always been something of a peripheral issue in the fraught relationsh­ip between Washington and Pyongyang, and that’s been a source of frustratio­n for family members.

More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the conflict, including those listed as missing in action.

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