How The U.S. Pays For Korean War Remains

After North Korea turned over 55 boxes of what are expected to be the remains of American service members who went missing during the Korean War, a Pentagon spokesman said “it reimburses North Korea for the costs of the recovery but does not pay for the remains themselves.” (“For the U.S., a frustrating history of recovering human remains in North Korea,” Washington Post, July 4, 2018)

The reality is that the U.S. pays North Korea an extraordinary amount for remains in extraordinary ways.

There are two types of payments:  (1) Compensation, also known as “gratitude payments,” for remains turned over unilaterally, such as the recent delivery of 55 boxes.  (2) Up-front payments to pay North Korea in advance for its contributions to excavations undertaken in North Korean by a mixed team of U.S. and North Korean personnel, known as Joint Recovery Operations (JRO).

With regard to the compensation payments, in 1991-2 North Korea turned over 208 boxes of remains.  On August 24, 1993 the United Nations Command (UNC) and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) signed an “Agreement on Remains-related Matters.” For the first time, the U.S. military agreed to “render support” for the NKPA’s efforts to locate, exhume, repatriate and identify the remains of UNC personnel.

The NKPA interpreted “render support” to mean that the UNC was required to compensate the NKPA for costs incurred for the previous unilateral turnover.  The NKPA demanded $3 million.  Negotiations were on-again off-again until 1996.  After a meeting in New York, acting on behalf of the UNC which objected to the way DoD had handled the negotiations, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Wold agreed to pay the NKPA $2 million.

At the bottom of the New York Agreement was the following handwritten note, “Both sides agreed this compensation will not serve as a precedent for any further compensation.”  The payment was made in Pyongyang on May 20, 1996, apparently in cash.

With regard to the advance payments for the right to conduct JRO’s in North Korea, I obtained the terms of two payments made in 2004 and 2011. These are referred not as agreements, but “Record Of Arrangement.”  The final clause of the 2011 deal states, this Record of Arrangement “is a voluntary arrangement” that “is not intended to be a binding document.”

In 2004, in a “Record of Arrangement” the Department of Defense agreed to provide the following to North Korea to facilitate the JRO’s scheduled for 2005:

  1.  83,136 kg of rice, 10,392 kg of vegetables, 395,055 liters of gasoline, 111,504 liters of diesel, 12,500 liters of kerosene, 12,265 liters of lubricant
  2.  24 new Nissan Patrols and two vans
  3. Replaced 14 Nissan Patrols and two cargo trucks with 24 Mitsubishi Pajeros and two new cargo trucks
  4. Leased 20 sedan, four buses and four truck
  5.  $5,500,000 in cash

In exchange, the North Koreans agreed to provide:

  1. Access to a fax machine
  2. Telephone capable of calling the US
  3. Weekly visits to each field site
  4. Access to continuous communications via telephone and two-way communications with the base camp.

After all of the goods, supplies and cash were delivered, the 2005 JRO’s were cancelled by DoD on May 25, 2005, in the middle of the program. The DPRK retained all of the goods and did not return any of the money.

In the 2011 “Record of Arrangement” DoD agreed to deliver the following to facilitate the 2012 JRO’s:

  1.  30 new sport utility vehicles and two new cargo trucks
  2. Leased 30 sedans, four buses, and four trucks
  3.  72 tons of rice, 8.9 tons of vegetables, 26 tons of meat, 333,204 liters of gasoline, 100,000 liters of diesel fuel, 12,500 liters of kerosene, seven tons of propane, and 8,660 liters of lubricant.
  4.  $5,699,160 in cash

All of these supplies and the cash was delivered to North Korea in February 2012.  On March 28, 2012, DoD canceled the 2012 JRO missions.  North Korea again received the supplies, vehicles and the cash in return for exactly nothing.

The 2004 and 2011 deal provided North Korea with $11,199,160 in cash in exchange for nothing.  There is no doubt that the North Korean junta used this money to buy all kinds supplies.

There is no evidence that anyone at any level, neither the DoD Inspector General (IG) nor any Congressional oversight committee, has ever audited these shipments and payments.  The DoD IG, which extensively audited payments made to Vietnam, has never been instructed to audit the payments to North Korea.

The question now is, how will the Trump administration respond if North Korea demands a “gratitude payment” for the 55 boxes?  Any payment, such a millions in cash as before, would violate U.N. sanctions.

(Note:  Trump made the false statement that “thousands and thousands” of parents of the Korean War missing had asked him to bring home remains from Korea.  Trump made the false statement that North Korea had returned 200 sets of remains.)