NCNK Works with Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs

December 15, 2016

The following is an excerpt from the Fall 2016 Newsletter of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, which discusses their most recent trip to Pyongyang  on the issue of bringing home the remains of American POW/MIAs from the Korean War. 

Families Negotiate with Pyongyang

The Coalition was part of a delegation from the Richardson Center for Global Engagement that met with North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister in Pyongyang. The featured point of the meeting was to return remains of missing American servicemen from the Korean War. North Korea has a reported 120 sets of U.S. remains unearthed during agricultural and construction projects over the years. They have repeatedly asked the U.S. what to do with them. In each instance, U.S. officials intertwined the humanitarian return of the remains with the political nuclear faceoff, and deferred repatriation.

The Coalition chose to pursue an alternate path. We reached out to nongovernment organizations and were welcomed warmly. One relationship has led to another, as we have become part of a network of NGOs dedicated to complementary issues and anxious to help each other.

We met with former governor Bill Richardson (Richardson Center) through another organization in June. We raised the remains issue, along with searching for air loss sites across North Korea. Gov. Richardson and his staff were encouraging from the start. This positivity carried through negotiations between the Richardson Center and the DPRK’s UN Mission in New York. The request for a meeting soon received approval from Pyongyang and then a nod from the White House. Three months later, with support from the Korean Peace Network , and where they could the DPAA, the Richardson Center’s vice president, a forensic anthropologist named P., and the Coalition’s president were winging their way to North Korea.

We were welcomed warmly and treated well. The meeting was formal. The Vice Foreign Minister, a translator, and two other men were on one side of a very long table. The three Americans sat on the other side. The Vice Foreign Minister presented a lengthy opening statement in Korean, punctuated with the English translation. Negotiations began the same way, English-to-Korean, Korean-to-English.

Our presentation focused on the humanitarian nature of the remains issue. The North Korean view was that the humanitarian aspect lost relevance when the U.S. pulled out recovery teams in line with the political stalemate involving the Six Party Talks in 2005. We could not argue the point. The turn in our talks came when we asked what North Korea wanted in order to change the situation. The translator was no longer needed. The Vice Foreign Minister continued from there in very good English. The requirements were presented. Hands were shaken. Pictures were taken. The meeting was over.

The actual outcome is still to be determined. The North Koreans want to give us the remains. Their request needs to be met first. It is a reasonable request, nonmonetary, and has been passed on to those who can grant it in the U.S. 

The overall success of the trip will be measured in different ways. One way is that we met with the vice foreign minister of the DPRK and discussed returning U.S. remains. This alone is success beyond what could only have been imagined three months beforehand. According to the New York Times, “The visit appeared to be the first face-to-face contact in North Korea between such an American delegation and North Korean officials in nearly two years.”

Full success will be when the remains of the missing men come home. All it will take is a little humanity.

President’s Corner: Together Again—In A Way

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.

Rick Downes, President

Lt. Hal Downes, father - MIA 1952)