North Korea’s countryside (former battlefields) holds so many answers to so many stories of American servicemen still missing during the Korean War. Those answers have been in limbo due to standing U.S. policy of nonengagement toward North Korea, and North Korea’s complete disregard for that policy.
There are two prevailing views on which direction U.S. policy should follow – engagement or nonengagement. On the surface, they seem simplistic options … to be, or not to be. Between these policies is the no-man’s-land where answers to the fate of men still missing in North Korea wait to be found.
The two approaches can be complementary. Humanitarian and political policies can offer alternative ways to interact. Engagement calls for humanitarian exchanges that stand outside political disagreements. The recovery of missing men’s remains falls in this line of thinking. In nonengagement (strategic patience), the standing U.S. policy. the U.S. government withholds humanitarian involvement (like the recovery of U.S. remains) as a tactic, a tool.
Surprising to many, North Korea does pretty well separating the policies. It will unleash wild rhetoric damning U.S. cities to nuclear hurricanes, while graciously welcoming individual Americans to their country (like the family members of missing men). It is a duality that serves them. The U.S. approach sacrifices any good that can come from humanitarian engagement.
The current U.S. administration is still shaping its policy toward North Korea. There have been dynamic swings in approaches—ranging from lunch invitations to aircraft carrier deployments. Signs of engagement do appear, but as fluffs of dandelions, vulnerable to the wind.
One glimmer of positive direction, a momentary glimpse of what could be, appeared in a recent DPAA notification that a U.S. / Korean War serviceman’s remains had been identified.
“DPAA (DOD) appreciates the (North) Korean People's Army, as well as Korean witnesses (named), for their assistance and partnership in this recovery effort.”
A window opened and a spring breeze drifted through. Rarely, if ever, has North Korea’s role in recoveries been acknowledged. Was the new administration looking to see what might happen with an offering of gratitude? Sadly, like the fluff of dandelion, the outreached hand flitted apart with the breeze; called a mistake.
If/when the U.S. reaches beyond a one-way street approach to North Korea, there will be hope that the pledge of no man left behind will become more than patriotic holiday political-speak. We will then resume joint remains recovery operations of the roughly 5000 loved ones still lost in the countryside (former battlefields) of North Korea.
Families are waiting, as they have been waiting … a lifetime of waiting.
Short Term Relationships
A year has passed since the DPAA’s director left us mid-leap toward a new direction. The search for the next leader goes on, but it may be futile in the end. Turnover in the DPAA/DPMO’s director position has become regular happenstance. They come and go like the seasons, with minimal impact on the mission they direct.
There are reasons for this. The role is demanding, thankless in many ways, and often answers to temporary players and vacant offices in the chain of command going upward. Four Secretaries of Defense have passed through that office during the past eight years. The leadership positions directly below the SecDef change as frequently. There are few developed relationships that can build the mission within this hierarchy; little direction. The current acting Director of DPAA may achieve longevity records just holding down the fort.
The Coalition is a casual observer during these changes in leadership. The time and effort spent researching possible candidates, submitting recommendations then championing a favorite, even writing this article, become meaningless when the door to the office revolves so soon after the appointment is made.
That time and effort are better spent reaching beyond the empty offices and revolving doors, focusing on the real policymakers in the White House and Congress. They are the designers of the agenda handed down the chain of command. If and when the DPAA director position is filled, the Coalition’s role will have been to help influence the policies she or he will carry out.
Long Term Relationships
Progress that really matters will come from relationships beyond the DOD’s accounting mission. The Coalition’s relationships with Congressional offices, nongovernment organizations, and dedicated individuals are consistently productive. Through them, we have sat across the table from North Korea’s vice foreign minister and discussed remains return, introduced declassification legislation into the U.S. Senate, met with state department officials and a special consultant to the President.
These partnerships with nongovernmental organizations and congressional staff members are where success within the mission lays. They mature and diversify, as well: The executive director of a NGO introduces us to a Senate committee staffer with long-standing support for pow/mia issues. The executive director later leaves the NGO, and is followed in the position by the same congressional staffer, who later sets us on a path with other NGOs that leads to direct negotiations with North Korea.
Legislative staffers of retiring Congressional members, or those who don’t win reelection, move on to new offices. The relationships carry over. All along the way, critical meetings are arranged, important letters are written, and new connections are made.
Lasting accomplishments within the mission are measured in these baby steps. Identifications made today happen because of steps taken years ago. We all wish for the big swoosh of movement that will answer all our questions. For some reason, the pow/mia. mission has never been meant for easy answers.
Meanwhile, our loved ones are on dedicated policymakers’ minds and in their hearts. We are not alone, and we owe these unsung colleagues a great deal of appreciation.
Sometimes extraordinarily good things happen to us because something extraordinarily not-so-good happened a long time before.
Last September, I traveled to North Korea as a member of a delegation from the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. We were there to negotiate with DPRK officials for the return of U.S. remains from the Korean War. I’m not writing about that here though. Something very personal happened along the way.
My father is MIA during an air mission that took place over North Korea in 1952. A significant part of my life has been influenced by what happened that night; mainly because we don’t know what happened. Thousands of other families are in similar scenarios. We share a bond that way. We all want similar things. One of those things for me is to stand wherever what happened took place.
The general area where my dad’s plane went down is known. It isn’t too far outside Pyongyang. The flight path of North Korea’s Air Koryo jet took us over the same area. I made sure to have a window seat. (Thank you to my colleague who traded with me.) More than sixty years after my father flew his fateful mission, his son flew part of the same route.
We were landing, so the plane flew low enough to get a true feel for the landscape; at about the same altitude as my dad would have bailed out, if he bailed out.
The countryside was much prettier for my flight. My father’s plane was lost in January. I went in September. The rice paddies and randomly spaced hills were golden, not frozen white. The hills were important. A returned crewman recalled explosions from the plane’s ammo coming from beyond a hill. Any one of the hills I looked down on could have been that hill. Any one of those rice paddies could have been where my dad is buried … or was marched off to who knows where.
After decades of hope and pursuit, I was physically closer to my dad than at any other time since he said goodbye. I was the son returning for his father. As we lifted off on the return, I was able to again look down on those fields, those hills, with small farming villages scattered among them. I said the obvious: I would be back. I don’t know if I will, but being that close, at least once, brought a change within me. Some measure of closure, I suppose. A small part of me healed. Strangely enough, I feel that a small part of my dad healed too.