Korean War POW/MIAs

Last Updated October 2015


Over 7,800 U.S. military personnel who fought in the Korean War are “unaccounted for,” a term used to describe those who remained captive or missing at the conclusion of hostilities, or those killed in action whose remains have not been located, recovered, and identified.1 The U.S. military estimates that 5,300 of these service members were buried in North Korea.2 The remains of some unaccounted-for American military personnel have returned to U.S. custody, but technological limitations have forestalled or slowed the pace of identification.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the Pentagon agency responsible for accounting for missing personnel from the Korean War and other conflicts, and for identifying remains returned from the battlefield. It was formed in 2015, replacing several Defense agencies that had different responsibilities related to this mission. From 1996 to 2005, these predecessor organizations had performed remains recovery operations within North Korea. However, these operations have not subsequently resumed. Most new identifications of unaccounted-for Korean War personnel have been made through the application of DNA and forensic technology to remains that had previously been returned to the U.S.3


Korean War Repatriations

Negotiating the release of prisoners of war was a central part of Armistice negotiations, and the possibility that some U.S. POWs were not repatriated by North Korea following the Armistice has been a sensitive and controversial subject. In 1951, early in the negotiation process, the North Koreans and Chinese reported that they were holding 3,198 Americans captive, a number below U.S. expectations given the total number of personnel missing in action.3 As Armistice negotiations picked up in April and May 1953, the two sides exchanged sick and wounded prisoners, including 149 Americans. A further 3,313 Americans were released in August 1953 after the Armistice was signed. At the time, Gen. Mark Clark, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, believed more American prisoners remained under North Korean and Chinese control.4

In 1954, under the terms of the Armistice Agreement, North Korea returned over 4,000 sets of remains to the United Nations Command, primarily during “Operation Glory” in 1954.5 Eventually 867 sets of remains were declared “unknown” and were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii, known as “The Punch Bowl.” One set of remains was later transferred to Arlington Cemetery and interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the close of Operation Glory, approximately 8,100 U.S. military personnel remained unaccounted for.

During the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the declassification of U.S. archival material led to the issue of unaccounted-for U.S. POW/MIAs coming under greater public scrutiny. At a 1992 Senate hearing, several researchers testified that some U.S. POWs may have been transported to the territory of China or the Soviet Union, but gave conflicting accounts as to how many Americans may have been transferred.6 The Eisenhower administration reportedly accepted advice not to publicize the transfer of POWs, both to spare the families pain and to avoid a call for a resumption of military action. Declassified Pentagon documents indicate that as many as 388 Americans may have been held as POWs in North Korea and not repatriated, or that their deaths in custody were not reported.7

The DPAA has stated that the U.S. has investigated all credible reports concerning American POWs still alive in North Korea, and that North Korean defectors arriving in the South are routinely asked for information about this topic. However, the agency states that “this effort has produced no useful information concerning live Americans,” and that most reports of live Americans in North Korea have concerned a handful of known U.S. defectors.8


Remains Recovery and Identification

The pace of the identification of recovered remains is a key concern for Korean War veterans, family members and some elected officials in Congress. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2010 mandates providing “sufficient resources to ensure that at least 200 missing persons are accounted for under the [Defense Department POW/MIA accounting] program annually by 2015.” 9 New techniques and technology have enabled more identifications to take place.10 However, the pace of identifications has remained stagnant since the NDAA’s passage, and Defense Department officials indicated well before this deadline that the target of 200 identifications per year would be unachievable.11

In 2013, a leaked Government Accountability Office report indicated that the Department of Defense organizations responsible for accounting for missing personnel were “undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure.”12 Subsequent pressure from the U.S. Congress led to a comprehensive internal review of this community’s structure and practices, as well as legislation authorizing its reorganization into a single agency. This agency, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, was formally established in early 2015 with the mission of accounting for and identifying missing service personnel.13


Remains Recovery Operations in North Korea

As the U.S. and North Korea began negotiations over the North Korean nuclear issue and the normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations in the early 1990s, progress in recovering American military personnel remains was included as one of the U.S. pre-conditions for normalized relations.14 Between 1990 and 1994, North Korea turned over to the United States 208 boxes of remains that it had recovered unilaterally. Known colloquially as the “K208,” these boxed contained co-mingled remains and personal effects. DPAA has estimated that these boxes contain from 375-400 remains.15 (The commingling and poor condition of these remains has made identification challenging.)

In 1993, the two countries signed an agreement under which U.S. military personnel would enter North Korea to undertake remains recovery missions.16 These missions were suspended in 2005, officially because of the concerns regarding the safety of U.S. troops.17 Some observers speculated that there was also concern about U.S. payments made for expenses related to recovery operations at a time when the United States was trying to limit North Korea’s access to cash.18 In 2007, North Korea repatriated the remains of an additional six U.S. military personnel, in conjunction with the arrival in Pyongyang of an unofficial U.S. delegation, headed by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.19

In January 2010, the DPRK proposed resuming joint recovery missions.20 The United States made no public response until August 2011, when the Obama administration announced that it had suggested resuming dialogue on the issue.21 In October 2011, Robert Newberry, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW and Missing Personnel, met with his North Korean counterpart in Bangkok to discuss the resumption of remains recovery operations in the DPRK. These missions were scheduled to resume in April 2012. However, following the collapse of the “Leap Day Agreement” on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the U.S. announced that the remains recovery mission would be cancelled. The Defense Department also indicated that the missions did not take place because North Korea, citing U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises taking place that spring, had yet to implement the procedures negotiated in October.22

In a 2014 statement published by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea blamed the United States “hostile policy” for causing the remains recovery missions to end. The statement warned that remains of American soldiers would soon be lost, as they were being “carried away en masse due to construction projects of hydro-power stations, land rezoning and other gigantic natureremaking projects, flood damage, etc…”23


Joint Field Activities and Archival Research in South Korea, China, and Russia

South Korea  Although the DPAA characterizes recovery operations in South Korean battlefields from 1951 to 1956 as “extremely thorough,” reports of possible U.S. remains still occur; recovery missions at times result in the discovery of remains or personal effects. The DPAA states that approximately 950 sets of unrecovered remains of U.S. personnel from the Korean War are located in South Korea. Since 1982, 20 sets of remains from South Korea have been recovered, and 11 identified.24

China  The U.S. has conducted recovery operations in China involving aircraft crash sites from World War II, Korean War, and the Cold War, and these missions continue today.25 Fewer than 20 sets of unrecovered Korean War-era remains are believed to be located in China.26

As Chinese forces typically administered POW camps in North Korea during the Korean War, Chinese military archives are believed to contain information about unaccounted-for American POWs. After years of negotiation on access to Chinese military archives, in February 2008 the Defense Department and the Archives Department of China’s People’s Liberation Army signed an agreement in which Chinese archivists would review classified documents on U.S. POW/MIAs from the Korean War, and provide relevant information to the U.S. While progress under this agreement has been slow, it has nonetheless yielded some new information.27 The agreement was renewed for three years in May 2012, and was scheduled for another three-year renewal in 2015, coinciding with plans for the U.S. to undertake new field activities in China.28 However, some have argued that the Chinese government has not been fully cooperative in this endeavor.29

Russia  The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs was established in 1992 as a forum for both nations to seek information about their missing service personnel. The DPAA has stated that information obtained from this forum has clarified the circumstances of 336 Korean War personnel who were unaccounted for.30 Through the Joint Commission, U.S. analysts have been able to access Russian government archives and interview Soviet veterans of the Korean War and other conflicts. By 2006, the Commission had begun to languish, with Russia disbanding its side of the Commission and suspending U.S. archival access. However, U.S. researchers were allowed back into Russian military archives in 2010, and the Russian government established a reconstituted Commission the next year.31