P’yŏngyang’s Posthumous Hostages: The Repatriation of U.S. Service Members’ Remains from North Korea, 1991–2018

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Liu Zhaokun Assistant Professor, Research Institute of Public Health, School of Medicine, Nankai University, Tianjin, China

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Despite the unending nuclear crises and economic sanctions characterizing U.S.-North Korean relations, North Korea has adopted non-aggressive measures to establish bilateral relations with the United States and bypass U.S.-imposed sanctions without committing to denuclearization since 1990. The repatriation of the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in North Korea during the Korean War became a convenient tool for P’yŏngyang to achieve these two strategic aims, as well as the sole arena in where the two countries displayed meaningful cooperation. This article traces the return of each batch of U.S. bodies between 1991 and 2018 to analyze North Korea’s evolving prerequisites for releasing them. North Korea’s demands included ranking U.S. officials making visits, replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with new peace treaties, financial aid, and avoidance of any pressure to denuclearize, all of which served the regime’s goal of surviving in the post-Cold War world. Disagreement over reimbursing North Korea for its support in excavation and the inevitable connection between remains repatriation and denuclearization were major blocks to further cooperation in retrieving remains. This study analyzes the benefits and caveats of a low-risk approach to deescalating tensions in East Asia.

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