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New Year Brings New Hope for Families of POW/MIAs

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2004 – The new year brings new hope for families of the more than 88,000 Americans who are still missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Affairs Jerry Jennings (right) greets Colonel-General Li Chon Bok, a representative for Panmunjon Mission for the Korean People's Army. Jennings led meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 14 and 15. As a result, there will be five joint operations to recover the remains of American service members still missing from the Korean War. The first operations will be April 24 to May 25 in Unsan County, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, and near the Chosin Reservoir. Photo by Maj. Kent Sylvester, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

More than 600 U.S. specialists work every day around the world to locate and identify these loved ones, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Jerry D. Jennings. During 2003 teams operated in Albania, Australia, Belgium, Burma, Cambodia, China, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Laos, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Republic of Korea, Russia and Vietnam.

Jennings said no parent, relative, or community wants to see the youth of the nation die in a war. The nation's heroes, he added, are the sons and daughters serving in Baghdad and every other place troops are in harm's way.

"Our government has a solemn promise, and it's a sacred trust," said the former Marine, who served as an intelligence officer with the CIA in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1968. "This (accounting) mission will be accomplished. We will not forget our fallen heroes. We will recover them. We will bring them home."

In talking with the families of those who are missing, Jennings said he realizes that to the mother who lost a young man to combat, the son is still 18 years old. "A mother never forgets her son," he added striking the table with his hand. "The tears are as real today as they were 50 years ago. That was her son, and he was lost in combat, and she wants him home. She'll do anything in her power to get him home, and we're the tool to accomplish that."

Jennings recently led meetings in Bangkok, Thailand, with North Korea representatives to discuss arrangements to conduct five joint operations to recover the remains of American service members still missing from the Korean War. The talks, according to a DoD news release, focused on enhancing safety of the U.S. recovery teams, improving the U.S. remains recovery process and establishing a process for resolving reports alleging that living Americans may have been held in North Korea.

"We're delighted with our last negotiations, because we've succeeded in arranging access to one of the most difficult countries in the world to gain entry to," he said. "It's a government that is unfriendly to our government and our people. There are some very tough attitudes we have to get around on both sides. There are many very thoughtful, very serious officials on the American side who aren't sure we should be engaged in any kind of activity with these guys under the current circumstances, and we have to get around that."

Negotiations with North Korea, he added, usually begin with opening statements from both sides. "Their opening statement is usually very tough language directed at the U.S. government," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to sit there and listen, but we have a finite time for negotiations. This is the way they think, the way they believe, and these are things they want on the table before they begin to negotiate the humanitarian issue, so we sit there and listen."

Jennings said the mission of accounting for the missing must be treated as a humanitarian issue and not be tied to any other issues between the United States and North Korea or with any other country. He cited a quote from a January 2003 speech by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: "When the accounting issue is treated as a separate humanitarian issue, we can continue to make progress not only without jeopardizing any of our other policy goals, but in the end perhaps even opening further avenues."

Jennings said the Koreans are "tough" negotiators. He said every aspect of the agreement has to be carefully planned, thought out and executed in terms of access, support and force protection.

Force protection issues are "critical everywhere we operate, but are especially important in North Korea" said Jennings. "We don't want to put troops in harm's way to recover our heroes from past wars," he said. "We know it can never be risk-free, but we want to reduce risks as much as possible. We want to ensure we have the communications and (medical evacuation) procedures we need, and each year we try to improve.

"We don't get everything from the North Koreans we ask for," he added. "We want more information on 'live sightings' in the north. There have been reports over the years of people seeing what they believe to be Americans up there. I'm on record as requesting to talk to deserters from the United States (who live in the north), but to this date (the North Koreans have) refused."

Every lead is followed, said Jennings. "Some take longer than others and some lead nowhere -- that is the nature of this information," he added. "Everything is treated seriously. If there's one American out there, we want to find him."

Operations for 2004 in North Korea are scheduled to begin April 24 in Unsan County, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, and near the Chosin Reservoir. Additional operations are slated to begin May 29, July 3, Aug. 7 and Sept. 11. Each will last about a month.

In 27 operations since 1996, American and North Korean teams working in North Korea have recovered the remains believed to be those of 186 American service members. Fourteen of these have been identified and returned to families for burial, while the others continue to be analyzed. More than 8,100 Americans still are missing from the Korean War.

Over the years, Jennings said he believes the relationship has improved. There's a degree of "comfort" between the United States and North Korea in conducting recovery operations. "They realize we're not up there to embarrass them," he said. "We're not up there to do anything except recover our heroes from the Korean War."

Jennings said the deputy secretary of defense called the accounting mission "vital" during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Korean War in July. He quoted Wolfowitz again: "(The) Korean War will not really end for us until every American is brought home or accounted for. We owe them that. We owe it to their families. We owe it to the brave men and women who go into combat for us today and we will keep our promise."

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