US and North Korean officials met on Sunday to discuss the return of remains of American soldiers killed almost seven decades ago during the Korean War, with the talks offering a chance to ease tensions between the two sides as they argue over disarmament issues.
The meeting began around 10 am Seoul time at the border village of Panmunjom, and it was unclear how long the talks would last, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified government and US military officials.
The negotiations are the first working-level talks since Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month ended with North Korea denouncing the US’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation.”
The Sunday meeting was initially set for Thursday, but was rescheduled after the North Koreans failed to show.
The US Department of Defense estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from some 5,300 American military personnel who went missing during the three-year conflict that ended in 1953. Their recovery has long been among the most emotionally charged issues between the two sides. Caskets that the US shipped to the border last month haven’t been filled, despite Kim Jong-un’s pledge during his June 12 summit with US president to immediately repatriate identified remains.
While recovering the war dead would provide Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three living American detainees, it would do little to advance the goal of dismantling the regime’s weapons programme. The US also risks giving the North Koreans leverage to continue diplomacy and drag out disarmament talks.
“They might eventually return them as a sop to the diplomatic process, but it’s an easy concession to make and it doesn’t really contribute towards denuclearisation in any way,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
The agreement to meet on the militarised North-South border about American war dead was perhaps the most tangible outcome from Pompeo’s trip, which ended with North Korea criticising the secretary of state’s lack of emphasis on security guarantees as “regretful.” Pompeo called the talks “productive.”
The divergence in public comments fueled further doubts about whether Trump will ever achieve his goal of “complete denuclearisation,” much less on the timeline of one to 2-1/2 years set out by various administration officials.
Nevertheless, Trump praised Kim, saying that “great progress” was being made in negotiations. In a Twitter post, Trump attached copies of a July 6 letter from Kim lauding the US leader’s “energetic and extraordinary efforts” and expressing “invariable trust and confidence” in his ability to advance talks. The letter’s date suggested it was written before Pompeo’s latest visit.