WASHINGTON, Aug. 26, 2010 — The Defense Department is as committed as ever to bringing home thousands of U.S. servicemembers who remain missing from the Korean War and Cold War conflicts, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy said today.
“This issue has the full and unequivocal support of this secretary and this nation,” Michele Flournoy said at the Korean War/Cold War Annual Government Briefing on the accounting of missing and imprisoned servicemembers held in Arlington, Va. Ensuring resources are available “to have the fullest possible accounting” is a top priority of the department, she said.
As many as 5,400 Americans may still be in North Korea, and another 900 may be in the demilitarized zone that has divided North and South Korea since an armistice in 1953 halted three years of fighting there, Flournoy said. Because there has never been a peace treaty to officially end the war, those areas remain inaccessible to the department’s search and recovery teams, she said.
American search teams were allowed into North Korea under tight control between 1996 and 2005, and recovered the remains of 225 U.S. servicemembers, 81 of whom have been identified, Flournoy said. Rising international tensions with North Korea over its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship this year have ended those operations, the undersecretary said.
Further complicating efforts, Flournoy said, are ongoing reports that “tiny” numbers of veterans may have defected to the north, raising concerns that they are being held as prisoners of war. Department officials have spent years trying to determine if the reports are true, she said.
“We have no evidence that U.S. servicemembers are being held against their will in North Korea,” she said. “But we cannot tell you in many cases the fate of our missing servicemembers.”
Despite the challenges, she said, “We will get through this difficult period and do everything in our power to resume recovery operations and bring our servicemembers home.” Flournoy called the issue of missing or imprisoned servicemembers “surely the most painful legacy of war,” and said the department is committed to keeping its search and recovery staff fully resourced. Congress, also, has shown its willingness to provide for the recovery of POWs/MIAs by including in the current budget a directive that 200 new staff members be added to the effort each year until 2015.
Meanwhile, the United States has had increasing collaboration with Russia and China to recover missing servicemembers, and currently is evaluating remains found from a plane crash in the China Sea reported by Chinese officials, Flournoy said.
The department usually recovers the remains of between 80 and 85 missing servicemembers each year, she said.
Flournoy told the audience that their work gives hope to the 200,000 military members currently deployed in war zones. POW/MIA work “is not an artifact of the distant past,” she said. “These issues remain urgent, and our commitment to leaving no one behind is as vital and real as it has ever been.”
Search and recovery techniques have vastly improved in recent years, and the department’s teams are the best in the world, Flournoy said. “No one is more dedicated to the mission,” she added.
“Your loved ones gave their lives for this country,” she said. “We honor their sacrifices, and we are committed to their recovery.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)