- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2019

CHEORWON, South Korea — Lt. Col. Lee Jae-wook pushes his arm through a gap in the steel fence atop a small military outpost in the lush green mountains of the Demilitarized Zone that has divided South Korea from North Korea for the past 66 years.

A hot sun beat down brightly on a recent late-summer day as the South Korean officer pointed to a dirt-colored ribbon of road carving up the side of one mountain, about halfway across the 2-mile-wide stretch between this outpost and a string of similarly barbed, wire-rimmed guard towers on the North Korean side.

“That’s where the North Koreans are supposed to be doing their excavations,” said Col. Lee, gesturing toward an area near the dirt road built a year ago as part of a historic breakthrough as the two Koreas agreed for the first time to work together to find the untouched remains of thousands who died in battle decades ago.

Here’s the catch: There hasn’t been any movement by North Korean soldiers on the road for months. While workers on the southern side make slow daily progress, scraping through dirt and rocks in search of remains, the North Korean side of the operation has been halted since February.

“They removed landmines in that area,” said Col. Lee, 44. “Then they stopped.”

The halt has coincided with a wider freeze in diplomacy with North Korea, including denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, which have been stalled since the failure of the high-stakes summit in February between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam.

During the months leading up to Hanoi, the Kim regime had engaged in an unprecedented thaw in relations with the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, culminating with the Pyongyang Joint Declaration signed in the North Korean capital in September 2018.

The declaration called for a number of actions, including increased civilian and diplomatic exchanges between North and South. The centerpiece was the agreement to begin working together at recovering the remains of soldiers from both sides of the war in a highland corner of the DMZ known as Arrowhead Ridge.

The ridge is among several areas near Cheorwon, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Korean War. It is believed to hold the remains of more than 300 South Korean, American and French soldiers, as well as perhaps 3,000 North Korean and Chinese troops, all caught up in a hellish 1952 firefight.

The area had been frozen in time since the Korean War was halted by an armistice in 1953 — a development that resulted in the creation the DMZ, which has had North and South Korean guns pointed across it ever since. The war, technically, still goes on.

South Korean activity

While the North has stopped work, South Korean soldiers say, their own push to recover and identify as many remains as possible is gaining speed.

Officials at the outpost in Cheorwon said the remains of 182 fallen soldiers have been recovered since last year and that the sensitive process of identifying each one has begun. They try to match the remains with DNA samples from the soldiers’ home countries.

The outpost’s lower level is filled with war-battered personal effects of soldiers recovered from the excavation. The stretch of scraped earth roughly the size of a football field on a mountainside near the dirt road where the team works can be seen from the outpost’s roof.

Among the recovered personal effects: steel canteens riddled with shrapnel holes, half-melted and bent machine gun muzzles, tiny glass medicine vials, bullet-pierced combat helmets, the eroding plates of an American-issue flak vest and badly damaged Chinese-issue gas masks, all on display in one of the outpost’s rooms.

North Korea showed eagerness to engage on the issue of soldier remains during the first summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump in Singapore in June 2018. Less than a month after the summit, Mr. Kim sent 55 boxes presumed to hold the remains of American soldiers to the United States.

Mr. Trump repeatedly has cited the cooperation over remains as one of the main fruits of his personal diplomacy with the North Korean regime, but officials say communication with Pyongyang toward securing the delivery of more remains has stalled since the Hanoi summit broke down.

Despite the president’s claims, the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency acknowledged this spring that is was expecting no more remains from North Korea this fiscal year. The agency said there has been no direct contact with North Korean officials on the program since the Hanoi summit.

Asked by Time magazine in June about the suspension of the cooperation, Mr. Trump said, “Look, we’ve gotten remains back. That will start up again.”

Hopes are running high for a renewal of U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks as well as inter-Korean diplomatic and military talks. Analysts say there are clear signs that Mr. Kim, despite months of provocations that have including several short-range missile tests, is increasingly eager to reengage with Washington and Seoul, and the ouster of hawkish White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton removes a key skeptic of the talks.

South Korean officials say they believe North Korea will seek by the end of September to resume “working level” talks with U.S. officials for the first time since Hanoi. Many in Seoul believe such talks will create an opening for reenergized military-to-military communications between North and South Korea.

Celebrating ‘stasis’

That could mean North Korean participation in joint excavations inside the DMZ will follow. Even if it does not, some analysts say, the symbolic importance of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration remains intact.

“After the [declaration], many people are rightly concerned that many provisions are not being implemented,” said Nam-ju Lee, a regional analyst and professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.

“Many people wonder if North Korea is really committed to this declaration,” Mr. Lee said at a conference in Seoul last week hosted by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank.

“But the agreement was especially meaningful because it said the two Koreas would stop hostile activities in the DMZ, and this has happened over the past year,” he said. “If we can have peace at least in the DMZ, that is going to be symbolic, very symbolic in maintaining the momentum of dialogue between the two Koreas.”

Without question, the way the long history of clashes and at times deadly exchanges of fire along the DMZ have quieted over the past year shouldn’t be overlooked, longtime North Korea watchers say.

“I think we have to recall that despite the current stasis, we are a long way from where things were 30 years ago,” said Leon V. Sigal, who heads the Northeast Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and was with a small group that recently toured Cheorwon.

“The calm that we witnessed on the DMZ,” he said, “would have been incomprehensible 30 years ago.”

Mr. Sigal, who spoke alongside Mr. Lee at the Korea Institute for National Unification conference in Seoul last week, suggested that the Pyongyang Joint Declaration could one day evolve into a formal “peace declaration” between North and South Korea, as well as the U.S. and China, and that a formal peace treaty might replace the armistice that froze the Korean conflict more than six decades ago.

“A full agreement or treaty is going to take time to negotiate,” he said, asserting that there have to be “stepping stones” along the way — stepping stones that “will reduce the chances of deadly clashes on the Korean Peninsula.”

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