- - Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Soldiers who give their “last full measure of devotion,” as Abraham Lincoln described death on the battlefield, deserve the highest honor a nation can bestow. The fundamental honor is a dignified burial. That right and honor has been long denied to thousands of men who fell in Korea. North Korea can heal the open wound on the American conscience by finally returning the remains of its long-lost sons.

Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the armistice that halted the fighting on the Korean peninsula. Following President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month, hopes blossomed that the government in Pyongyang would mark the date as the moment to display a gesture of good will with the return of the remains of American soldiers. Trust between the United States and North Korea is difficult, and gestures large and small are needed to encourage that trust.

Mistrust bordering on hatred has marked the relations between North and South in Korea since the fighting ended in 1953, and the danger of renewed conflict has flared in recent years with the North’s provocative demonstrations of its nuclear weapons capability, testing them in underground explosions and firing ballistic missiles over the heads of its Asian neighbors. Mr. Kim’s threats to reduce American cities to nuclear ruins raised the ire of President Trump, who dispatched a naval battle group to the Korean coast to remind Kim Jong-un who holds the high cards.

The June summit in Singapore between the two leaders, however, opened a new conversation about the path to peace, and the question now is whether the adversaries will actually walk that path together. Since their meeting, Mr. Kim has written to his American counterpart, thanking him for “the energetic and extraordinary efforts made by Your Excellency Mr. President for the improvement of relations between the two countries and the faithful implementation of the joint statement.” Mr. Trump, in turn, has tweeted, “A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made!”

But words are less expensive than deeds. Delay breeds frustration. Mr. Trump agreed at Singapore to begin the repatriation of the remains of 200 Americans who died in Korea, but the Pyongyang government has failed to show up for scheduled negotiations. North Korea continues to “commercialize” the return of the war dead, and the United States paid $22 million between 1990 and 2005 for the return of the remains of American war dead. Selling the bones of soldiers to their native land is a crime of conscience in any culture.

Of the 33,000 Americans who died in Korea, 7,699 are still listed as officially missing; 5,300 of these are thought to have been lost in fighting north of the 38th Parallel. If the new warm feelings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump actually mean anything, the mortal remains of the American dead cannot be returned with a price tag.

Soldiers lost for eternity has been more the rule than exception in the grim history of warfare. Of the 16 million Americans who took up the uniform in World War II, more than 400,000 were killed and 72,000 remain officially unaccounted for, as reckoned by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Of the 3 million who served in Vietnam, about 1,600 are still listed as missing, and efforts to find the missing and bring them home is getting new attention. Putting modern technology to bear on the search has made locating the remains of missing men and women easier. The number of the missing from the 3 million who served in the Iraq and Persian Gulf wars is only 5. This is not only a tribute to technology, but to devotion as well to the warrior’s creed: “Leave no man behind.”

If Kim Jong-un is serious about his professed desire to resolve long-standing conflict on the peninsula, he can demonstrate it by resuming the return of the remains of American soldiers to sleep in American soil. This is the token of good will that Americans have a right to expect. Mr. Trump must press his new friend in Korea to make good on his word.

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