“Until They Are Home” is one of the most sacred vows of the U.S. military. Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea search teams recovered 229 sets of American remains from 33-joint recovery operations.
Then Washington broke off these efforts because it claimed the safety of its searchers was not guaranteed. Critics of the program argued the North was using the deal to squeeze cash out of Washington – “bones for bucks,” they said. In the meantime, possible remains and recovery sites are being lost as North Korea works to improve its infrastructure. In 2011, discussions about resuming recovery work fell apart after North Korea launched a rocket condemned by the U.S. as an illegal test of ballistic missile technology.
After months of requests, Associated Press (AP) delegates were finally allowed to go to the North Korean hamlet of Ryongyon-ri with a Korean People’s Army escort. The hamlet is nestled among low rolling hills in the heart of a Korean War battleground almost 100 miles north of the capital of Pyongyang.
At a burial mound near the top of a small hill, the village elder, Song Hong Ik said, “These are your American GIs.” Song stooped down by and pulled a sack from freshly turned dirt. Spreading open the sack, he reached in to reveal femurs, skull and jaw fragments, boots, and a rusted green helmet. Song said the bones came from the Chongchon River No. 10 Hydroelectric Power Station construction site.
Song said construction on the site, involving a lot of digging, began in earnest four years ago. That’s when the bones started piling up, he said. Maybe 70 to 100 sets – enough to fill some half-dozen makeshift burial mounds on the hill. Song explained that the valley will be flooded after the dam is complete.
More than 7,800 U.S. troops remain lost and unrecovered from the Korean War. About 5,300 were lost in North Korea. According to the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, most died in major battles or as prisoners of war.
Others died “along the wayside or in small villages” and many of the losses from aircraft crashes also occurred near battle zones or roads connecting them. “So,” it says, “it is possible that major concentrations of human remains are located in these areas.”
It’s impossible to judge the authenticity of remains simply by sight. Only a complicated forensic identification process can do that. There were no dog tags, unit insignia or other identification clues mixed in with the remains seen by the AP. Villagers acknowledged the remains were gathered haphazardly as construction progressed. It is quite possible, they said, the remains could include animal bones or the remains of combatants from other countries.
Even so, Maj. Natasha Waggoner said there is no schedule “at this time” to hold talks to send any search teams back. Until then, the jury remains out on the Ryongyon-ri remains.
Song, meanwhile, said he had mixed feelings about gathering the bones of his enemy and moving them to the hill so that they wouldn’t be lost when the valley is flooded. “Frankly, I don’t care if the Americans come or not,” he said. “But they owe us a thank you for taking care of their dead.”