The Department of Defense is as committed as ever to bringing home thousands of U.S. service members who are still missing from the Korean War and Cold War conflicts, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy said yesterday.
Speaking at the Korean War/Cold War Annual Government Briefing on the accounting of missing and imprisoned service members held in Arlington, Va., Michele Flournoy said this issue has the full and unequivocal support of her and the nation. Ensuring resources are available “to have the fullest possible accounting” is a top priority of the department, she added.
As many as 5,400 Americans may still be in North Korea, and another 900 could remain in the demilitarized zone that has divided North and South Korea since an armistice in 1953 halted three years of fighting there, Flournoy said. Because there has never been a peace treaty to officially end the war, those areas remain inaccessible to the department’s search and recovery teams, she said.
American search teams were allowed into North Korea under tight control between 1996 and 2005, and recovered the remains of 225 U.S. service members, 81 of whom have been identified, Flournoy said. Rising international tensions with North Korea over its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship this year have ended those operations, the undersecretary said.
Other complicating efforts include ongoing reports that “tiny” numbers of veterans may have defected to the north, raising concerns that they are being held as prisoners of war, Flournoy said. Department officials have spent years trying to determine if the reports are true, she said.
“We have no evidence that U.S. service members are being held against their will in North Korea,” she said. “But we cannot tell you in many cases the fate of our missing service members.”
Despite the challenges, she said, “We will get through this difficult period and do everything in our power to resume recovery operations and bring our service members home.”
Flournoy called the issue of missing or imprisoned service members “surely the most painful legacy of war,” and said the department is committed to keeping its search and recovery staff fully resourced. Congress, also, has shown its willingness to provide for the recovery of POWs/MIAs by including in the current budget a directive that 200 new staff members be added to the effort each year until 2015.