Korean War Decedents Remain Prisoners of Circumstance

We don’t hear much about those labeled “missing in action.” They are categorized as “remains not recovered.” The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office is the silent warrior in this war to find the fallen whose remains have not made it home.

One of the biggest challenges with resting places remains North Korean. By DPMO estimates, 4,000 lie waiting in that country, though this number seems low, especially for the Unsan/Chongchon area listed at 1,559 possible remains. Thousands of U.S. servicemen, mostly Army, died en masse early in the war.

Numbers aside, North Korea has offered to allow recovery teams back inside the country.

The U.S. has declined Pyongyang’s offer citing the need for the nation to agree resume discussion on halting its nuclear future. Though DPMO is a Defense Department entity, it seems odd to hold prisoner its mission even with crucial nuclear talks. Our guess is the North Koreans may decline the U.S. demand and DPMO will lose this rare opportunity.

Thirty-three missions to North Korea between 1996 and 2005 yielded the positive identification of 20 sets of remains. This number may seem insignificant compared to the numbers who wait. And wait. It is needle-in-a-haystack work and searchers rely on information from survivors, records, families, and locals even nearly 60 years later.

Having worked with a few interviewers from DPMO, this office seems to care about its mission about finding the deceased. I would think after some time, the remains become living people and DPMO is on a rescue mission. To hold DPMO and those who wait patiently in far-off places prisoner to much larger political realities, no matter their import seems a disservice to the Defense Department today, in the past and to service members and veterans. And the missing and their families.

Maybe lawmakers will find this issue matters to their constituents.

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