Unrelenting animosity continues to define the relationship between the United States and North Korea, but in the mid-1980s, P’yŏngyang began to seek non-confrontational measures to fulfill one of its major diplomatic objectives—opening a channel of direct negotiation with Washington. The bodies of U.S. soldiers who had perished or gone missing in North Korea in 1950 during the Korean War became bargaining chips for the North Koreans. This article analyzes the political stakes of these remains for the two countries. It traces the meetings between Congressman Gillespie V. Montgomery and North Korean officials in 1989 and 1990, which led to the first return of U.S. soldiers’ remains since October 1954. North Korea’s insistence on delivering the remains to Montgomery, rather than the Korean War Military Armistice Commission, was an attempt to force the United States to acknowledge its legitimacy. Unable to abandon the bodies, U.S. officials offered limited concessions, while endeavoring to maintain the status quo in Korea. The 1990 remains repatriation revealed the possibility of cooperation between the two countries.
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.