The Pentagon is considering sending a team of U.S. military personnel to North Korea to search for the remains of American troops killed during the Korean War, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Friday.
Speaking to reporters during an on-the-record briefing, Mattis said military officials are weighing such a mission following the return of what are believed to be the remains of American service members earlier that morning. (RELATED: Remains Believed To Be Servicemen Killed In Korean War Returned To US)
“That is certainly under consideration,” he said, according to Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin. “Absolutely.”
Mattis’s remarks came hours after a U.S. Air Force plane transporting 55 boxes containing possible remains of Americans killed during the Korean War landed at Osan Air Base in South Korea. The return of the remains, which coincides with the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities, was negotiated during a June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un.”
The return of fallen U.S. troops is a critical bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Trump has used it as an opening for talks that could lead to greater international oversight of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, while Pyongyang hopes the repatriation of American remains will lead to sanctions relief.
Tactical considerations aside, the North Korean regime deserves credit for sticking to the agreement to return the remains, Mattis said.
“This humanitarian act is a step in the right direction,” he said.
If the Pentagon does send a recovery team to North Korea, it would be the first time since 2005, when Washington halted a search program that had been set up in the 1990s.
The military estimates there are about 7,700 American troops still missing from the Korean War. Among those are about 5,300 who were killed above the 38th Parallel, the current border between North and South Korea, and many of them sit at aircraft crash sites or are buried in unmarked graves.
The remains returned on Friday will be transferred to a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii, where forensic tests will confirm if they are in fact American soldiers.
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