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US/DPRK Agreement on Accounting for American MIAs from Korea

Presenters: Alan Liotta, Deputy Director, Defense POW/MIA Affairs
May 10, 1996 11:00 AM EDT

Friday, May 10, 1996, 11 a.m.

Agreement on Accounting for American Servicemen Missing from the Korean War

Col. Douglas Kennett: Good morning. First, I'd like to welcome Charlie and Bob back from their long trip yesterday.

This morning, we have on-the-record single subject briefing with Mr. Alan Liotta who is the Deputy Director of the Defense Prisoner of War Missing in Action Office. He will bring us up-to-date on facts surrounding the agreement that we reached last night with the DPRK concerning the humanitarian efforts on POW/MIA remains in Korea. He'll have a short statement and then take your questions. Alan?

Mr. Liotta: Good morning. As most of you know, we successfully concluded an agreement with the DPRK yesterday for the recovery and compensation of remains of U.S. servicemen who have been missing from the Korean conflict. There are two principle objectives that were achieved by this agreement which we reached. The first is we resolved an issue of compensation for remains which have been returned to us in 1993 and ‘94. There were 162 sets of remains whose compensation had been a question. This had been an issue of discussion for quite some time and it had been a stumbling block on us being able to have broader discussions with the North Koreans on recovery efforts within the country.

And the second part of the agreement was an agreement that we would begin serious discussions with an expectation of beginning to launch joint operations, joint recovery operations in North Korea this year. The first step in that will be a meeting in the first half of June which will be used to outline all of the particulars, the logistical requirements and come to an agreement on a site and how we will conduct the joint recovery operation.

We see this as a very positive step forward on this humanitarian issue. It's something that we've been working on with the North Koreans through the United Nations Command, and then directly with them since January in an effort to try and resolve the issue. We kept our South Korean allies very closely in touch and working with them as we move forward on this and appreciated their support for this humanitarian effort that we've been engaged in. We've seen this as a positive development and response that we received in my office so far from families and veterans groups also have been very supportive and are very pleased with the developments that took place in New York.

That's the end of my prepared comments. I'd be glad to take any questions. Yes?

Q: This would be the first joint search, would it not? Weren't the e earlier remains just handed over by the North Koreans? In other words, this will be the first joint search.

A: This will be the first joint recovery search, yes.

Q: And have you set a -- have you a particular site in mind and where would that be?

A: We do not have -- no particular sites in mind at this time. We begun in my office to prepare some sites that we would like to propose; and the June meeting will be used for both sides to discuss a site and hopefully to determine what sites we go to first.

Q: Sir, the North Koreans have been linking this issue, the joint recovery issue, with bilateral talks with the United States on a peace treaty. Has that come up this time and do you know consider that to be no longer a problem or an issue -- the connection there?

A: In these talks, both of the talks in January in Hawaii and then these talks which were a continuation of the talks in Hawaii, we never discuss issues outside of this single issue. This is my office's portfolio with the POW/MIA issue and so we talked only in that context. We did not get into any discussion about the President's proposal or any other bilateral initiatives that are going on between the United States and DPRK.

Q: But my point is that they were saying up until now, as I understood, they were saying there will be no joint recovery operation until the United States agrees to have peace talks directly with North Korea. So, as far as you understand it, there's no connection?

A: No.

Q: It wasn't even raised?

A: They never expressed such a concern to us. When former President Carter traveled to North Korea, then President Kim Il Sung had expressed a desire or say a willingness for North Korea to engage in joint recovery operations. That was the first time that we had heard them express such a willingness and we have pursued it with them since then using former President Kim's words that, in fact, they're willing to do that. But they have never -- in many talks with us, they've never maintained such a linkage.

Q: Go ahead, Charlie.

Q: Sorry. I'm just trying to clear up where. Do you know where and exactly when the talks, the June talks will be?

A: The June talks? No, the venue and the specific date have yet to be determined.

Q: Will this joint operation involve a substantial number of U.S. military personnel going into North Korea? Will they have South Koreans with them? Where are the logistics?

A: Our expectation is that we will conduct this operation the same way we do operations jointly worldwide. It will probably be a small team, somewhere between six to eight or ten Americans and it will be specialists involved in this type of recovery work as well as mortuary affairs specialists and other specialists that we might need. If it's an aircraft site, for example, that has a potential of unexploded ordinance, than we would have an explosive ordinance specialist with us for safety reasons.

Q: Those will all be military personnel in uniform?

A: They typically do not work in uniform. They work in civilian clothes because of the nature of the sites that they're doing. But it would be military personnel, yes. The Department of the Army through the central identification laboratory runs all of these types of operations and that would be the people responsible.

Q: Would their be South Koreans with them?

A: We haven't gotten yet to planning. My expectation is probably not, but we haven't yet sat down and plan these operations. Typically when we operate worldwide, only have a U.S. personnel involved in the operation.

Q: Your interlocutors in New York and Hawaii, are they North Korean military or North Korean civilians?

A: The North Korean delegation was a mixed delegation. They had both Ministry of Defense and foreign ministry personnel on their delegations. So that helped the talks because we had all the relevant and important people at the table to make sure that everyone was in agreement.

Q: How many missing are we talking about, sir?

A: There are currently over 8,100 unaccounted for U.S. servicemen from Korea.

Q: Do you have any expectations of how many you might recover in this effort?

A: No, I can't say on this effort because it will determine on the site. We have a number of different kinds of sites that we could go to. We could go, for example, to a former POW camp where we know American servicemen were buried that died in the camp. We could go to known crash sites where we lost aviators to excavate a crash site. There are other places where we know of burial sites of individuals. Some are in mass graves where we would have a potential for a large number of recoveries and some are more isolated graves.

So, there's a lot of different sites that we can pick and choose from. What we want to try to demonstrate is a site that we will have a very good chance of making a positive recovery and subsequently an identification of the remains when we bring back to show that the North Koreans that this is a positive step and that we can indeed accomplish the goal that we're after and that is the return of these Americans back to the United States and to their families for burial with honors.

Q: Can you explain why in the statement you had a -- a statement that was released yesterday, you specifically mentioned that the $2 million compensation was not to be a precedent. Was there any discussions about sort of the price that it's going to cost us in the future to recover more bodies?

A: No. What that was actually is a reflection of part of the problem which we had in the past and that was we had paid compensation for some of the earlier sets of remains that they had returned to us and those costs were based on what we deemed to be fair and reasonable costs for the nature of the recovery. They then wanted to use the cost of those first sets remains shall we say for the subsequent set of returns, not going by a fair and reasonable estimate which is how we do our basis.

One of the benefits of joint recovery operation is that because we'll be in the country, we'll be able to get an accurate reflection of costs. We'll reimburse them if there's reimbursements to be associated. But for the fact of when we're not in there, we can't get an accurate representation. So, we base it on fair and reasonable and that's where the disagreement came into play.

Q: Their searches that they conducted themselves in the early nineties, you talked about 162 sets of remains. I've heard some reports that their performance in this area was rather poor and that there were only a few actual sets of probably U.S. servicemen. Can you discuss that?

A: The remains that were returned to us, the Central Identification Laboratory has reviewed those remains and we have not been able -- we've only positively identified five sets of remains. And that was one of the reasons that we were -- we wanted to impress upon the North Korean interlocutors for a need for joint recovery operations. Their recovery techniques were not allowing us to make positive identification. The reason we had the first set of negotiations on this issue in Hawaii was so that we could bring them to the central identification laboratory and they had one of their senior scientists as a member of their delegation at the time. So that we could have a honest exchange and showing them the recovery techniques which we use, the identification techniques which we use, and the strict legal constraints that the United States Government is under when we conduct an identification process. To give them a broader understanding of that process as it works.

Our hope then is as we move into joint recovery operations using our techniques in conjunction with some of their techniques, we will be able to recover remains and then be able to have a much higher identification rate when we bring them back to the United States because we've been involved in the recovery process.

Q: What's the maximum number you think could be recovered of the remains?

A: That's a difficult question to answer having not been on the ground in the country. Our expectation is that we will not be able to recover all 8,100.

Q: Well, 800 of them are for example, in Hawaii.

A: That's correct. So our guess would be that somewhere probably around 3,000 to 4,000 would be an accurate representation of what we could do. That number, of course, may change once we get onto the ground in North Korea and we're able to draw an assessment from the actual scene.

Q: How long is the team going to be in North Korea and will they have their own security detail with them?

A: It hasn't been determined yet. Those are all things which will be discussed at the June meeting.

Q: At the June meeting, are you going to be talking about just one site or are you going to have a list of sites?

A: We would hope to be able to discuss a variety of sites. We don't have any idea yet on what kind of sites they're thinking about. So, we'll be prepared to discuss several kinds of sites. The expectation would be -- depending on the site and length of time -- we would hope that we would be able to conduct more than one joint operation before the end of the year.

Q: Has there been any discussion of whether the North Koreans have recovered already by themselves any additional remains that haven't been returned?

A: Well, I don't know if they have any more that they have not turned over to us. We have not talked about that with them whether they had -- we didn't ask them that as we tried to resolve this.

Q: Why didn't you ask them that?

A: Because we were focused primarily on resolving the compensation issue, which focused then on could we ask any other questions. Once that was resolved, we wanted to begin the joint recovery. This is an issue where we've been trying to build trust and confidence in both sides and as we build their trust and confidence, we'll have an opportunity to go forward to get a better understanding of exactly what they do have and don't have. Obviously, if they do have some recovery remains that they have not yet turned over to us, we would welcome to receive those and we would hope that they'd turn them over to us right away. Those would be simple turn overs. The problem would be though however, in the recovery techniques which they used whether we would be able to identify them or not.


Q: How would you be compensating them for those?

A: If remains that they sent over to us we would have a discussion with them on appropriate compensation for those.

Q: My impression of the announcement is there's quite much concession by North Korea especially regarding the compensation amount of money. And did you find any flexibility of the change of attitude of the North Korean military regarding this meeting?

A: I think that the success in New York came clearly from the negotiations which took place in Hawaii in January; which as you'll recall those negotiations broke off after we come to largely an impasse on the issue. I think what happened in Hawaii is that they had a very clear understanding of the United States position and where we stood on this and what we were willing to do or not do. And in the ensuing months, they came back to New York and prepared to negotiate with us and both sides were able to craft an agreement that was mutually beneficial.

Q: And I'm asking the interpretation of U.S. side['s] of North Korean's position in the meeting. Which means North Korea probably interpret this agreement to be a potential high level meeting between two militaries.

A: It would be unfair to comment on what their expectations were in the meeting. One thing that has come out of this is it's not going to be a high level talk. I mean, if we begin a joint operation, joint recovery operation, it would be bi-level personnel which we use worldwide and that's not generally officer level type of personnel.

Q: Can you discuss a little bit how you came to the amount of $2 million for compensation?

A: The amount of $2 million dollars is what we determined to be fair and reasonable expenses that would be associated with the recovery of 162 sets of remains. [There are] a number of factors involved with that, including the recovery sites from where they told us these remains would come from and the kinds of initiative and efforts which they had undertaken to recover those sets of remains.



Q: And did the U.S. side propose this, or we've just waited then for the North Koreans to accept?

A: That's right. This offer, the $2 million was proposed to them in Hawaii as part of the Hawaii talks.

Press: Thank you.

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