PANMUNJOM, South Korea — The North Koreans could not have timed more adroitly the agonizing transfer of 50 to 55 sets of remains of the missing from the Korean War.
After a blitzkrieg of commentaries calling for a “peace declaration” to end the Korean War, they were ready to transfer the remains Friday morning at the new Kalma Airport near the port of Wonsan on the North Korean coast. By no coincidence, the transfer was timed for the 65th anniversary of the signing of the truce that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953.
The euphoria back at the White House was predictable if more than a little overdone. “Today’s actions represent a significant first step to recommence the repatriation of remains from North Korea,” said the statement, “and to resume field operations in North Korea to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who have not yet returned home.”
President Donald Trump, after some considerable petulance, according to The Washington Post, finally could relax. True, he had bragged more than a month ago that 200 sets of remains had been transferred already. Just a mistake. Now he could see this transfer, the first in 11 years, as vindication of the statement that he and Kim Jong Un signed at Singapore on June 12. Had they not agreed, as an add-on to a commitment to “complete denuclearization,” to “commit” to return of remains of those missing from the war?
Uh oh. There’s no longer any doubt what “commit” means: no deals are really done.
Where the remains are concerned, at each faint hint of talks about returning them, we’re going to be in for demands on demands for a peace treaty that would bring an end to the Korean War.
Yes, one might think the Korean War ended with the signing of a truce here at Panmunjom, on the North-South line, on July 27, 1953. But no, certainly not in the view of the North Koreans as well as a legion of others who say we’re still “technically at war.”
“Technically”? Despite flare-ups along the 150-mile-long demilitarized zone created by the truce, and occasional bloody battles in the Yellow Sea, the miracle of the truce is that a long peace has ensued. As far as U.S. and many in the South Korean military people are concerned, the lesson here is, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. They are certain that North Korea’s obsession with a formal treaty will come, sooner of later, with demands for withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and an end to the U.S.-Korean alliance.
And then? South Korea could confront an invasion reminiscent of June 24, 1950, when the Americans had only 500 advisors here.
At this “truce village,” where U.S. and North Korean soldiers have been staring across the line at each other 24 hours a day for 65 years, the air was full of false euphoria at a ceremony in the Joint Security Area straddling the North-South line.
None of the high-ranking officers from the U.S., South Korea and 16 countries that had participated in the war was willing to breathe a word about “denuclearization.” Whatever the Americans were really thinking, there was no talk, no suggestion that the North Koreans might attempt to wring further concessions while hoarding scores, hundreds, maybe thousands more remains, some of whom died in combat and some of whom may have been POWs never released.
“It’s an awesome day,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas James, director of operations of U.S. Forces Korea and the U.N. Command, the umbrella organization formed at the outset of the Korean War, under which U.S., South Korean and allied forces have faced the North Koreans ever since. “We’re in positive momentum right now. We’re going to maintain that.”
I asked a junior American officer who had been involved in working-level talks with the North Koreans what had become of the other 145-or-so “sets” that Trump had promised would be returned. “I never heard any numbers,” he responded, grinning.
The ceremony itself was just as it's been every year, beginning as always with recognition of the role played by the U.S., South Korea, and the allies, each represented by one soldier carrying its national flag.
"We deeply appreciate their contributions to the Republic of Korea," intoned Col. Burke Hamilton, secretary of UNMAC, the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, and master of ceremonies. "The agreement signed that day has perpetuated the peace for 65 years."
Maj. Gen. Shin Sang-bum, senior South Korean member of the U.N. Command, recognizing the role of soldiers who had "come from thousands of miles away" to defend South Korea, said it was "our solemn wish today to keep the peace" for which he credited U.N. forces with having "set the conditions to discuss the peace."
Shin studiously avoided mentioning the names of Trump, Kim Jong Un or his own President Moon Jae-in as he cited the North-South summit at Panmunjom on April 27 and the U.S.-North Korean summit of June 12 with having made possible "a permanent peace to be established in this time of change."
"Institutions must adjust themselves," he said, in the closest that anyone came to saying anything with political overtones. "We know 'freedom is not free'" — one of the catch phrases repeated by the Americans for years.
Shin concluded with an appeal that went to the heart of the debate over the prospects for real peace and reconciliation. "I would like to ask for your unrelenting support," he pleaded, "so the seed of peace planted on 27 April may flourish and bear fruit." Finally, against the background of a large window and balcony facing the main North Korean building, Panmungok, across the line, everyone posed for the ritual photographs commemorating the day.
Interestingly, there were no North Koreans visible with binoculars trying to make out the goings-on across the way, as they often do. A U.S. military policeman, regularly assigned to the Joint Security Area, told me with a laugh that North Korean guards routinely made throat-slashing gestures and uttered obscenities when glowering at the Americans across the line. Not today, though.