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Families of Korean War Missing Face More Disappointment This Memorial Day

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This Memorial Day comes just a few weeks after the families of those missing from the Korean War had another setback in their hopes for a resumption of the search for remains.

“I have to agree; it’s been a roller-coaster ride” over the years of raised and then dashed expectations, said Rick Downes, whose father went missing in Korea in 1952.

“We had that ‘whee”’ of a downhill ride last year when North Korea returned 55 boxes of remains after President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, said Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. “And now we’re doing one long uphill climb again.”

In a solemn “Honorable Carry” ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, last August, 55 flag-draped boxes believed to contain the remains of U.S. and possibly other allied troops who fell in the Korean War were removed from military aircraft.

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“Today, our boys are coming home,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who presided at the ceremony. He expressed hope that the 55 boxes represented the beginning of a process to resume searches in North Korea.

“Our work will not be complete until all our fallen heroes unaccounted for are home,” he said.

More than 7,800 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War; about 5,300 sets of remains are believed to be in North Korea, according to the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

At a meeting in Washington with families of the missing following the Hawaii ceremony, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, the DPAA director, told an overflow crowd that he was “guardedly optimistic” North Korea would cooperate with more remains recoveries.

Chuck Prichard, a DPAA spokesman, said Tuesday that, following the return of the 55 boxes, there had been periodic contact with North Korean officials on allowing U.S. forensic specialists and military teams to renew searches, as has been done in the past when the political climate permitted.

“Those communications did not result in any kind of progress,” Prichard said, adding that the contacts were broken off after Trump met with Kim again in Hanoi in February.

That meeting failed to produce any agreement on North Korean disarmament or the resumption of searches, the White House said at the time.

On May 8, the DPAA announced that efforts to resume recoveries were being suspended.

“We have reached the point where we can no longer effectively plan, coordinate and conduct field operations in the DPRK during this fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2019,” DPAA said in a statement. “We are assessing possible next steps in resuming communications with the [North Koreans] to plan for potential joint recovery operations to be scheduled during Fiscal Year 2020.”

Downes, who has long argued that remains returns should be kept separate as a humanitarian issue in talks with the North Koreans, said that Memorial Day ceremonies usually come with pledges from speakers that the missing will never be forgotten.

“I’d like to see those words take on meaning to the people who can make a difference,” he said.

Downes, who was three years old when his father, Lt. Harold Downes, went missing aboard a B-26 Marauder bomber that was hit over the North on Jan. 13, 1952, said, “This doesn’t have to go on for another 60 or 70 years.”

— Richard Sisk can be reached at

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