August 17, 2018
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: North Korea is the impossible state. It’s a place that’s stumped leaders and policymakers for more than three decades.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From recording.) Some have called the Korean War the forgotten war. But today we prove these heroes were never forgotten. Today our boys are coming home.
MR. SCHWARTZ: It has a complex history. And it has become the United States’ top national security priority.
KELLY MCKEAGUE: (From recording.) The mettle of our scientists and the capabilities of our labs will be challenged, but in the months and years ahead, they will make identifications from these remains and give families long-sought answers.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Each week on this show we’ll talk with the people who know the most about North Korea: CSIS’s Victor Cha, Mike Green, and Sue Mi Terry.
In this episode of The Impossible State, we’re continuing our streak of star guest appearances. We’re talking to CSIS’s Victor Cha and Dr. Jennie Jin. Jennie’s an anthropologist with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Dr. Jin’s in charge of the team that’s working to identify the recent POW/MIA remains from North Korea that were part of the negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Jennie joins us by phone from her lab in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Dr. Jin, what was it like going to Wonsan, North Korea in July to retrieve the 55 boxes of American servicemen’s remains?
JENNIE JIN: We flew out of Osan Air Base in Korea very early in the morning. And we could not fly directly over the DMZ, so we had to fly all the way out to the east coast. And then we flew back into North Korea. Everything was very carefully planned. So we landed exactly at 7:00 a.m., as we planned. And Wonsan was very hot and humid. I thought Seoul was very hot and humid. But Wonsan is a little higher up north, so I thought it might not be that hot. But it was very hot. The airport was really nice. The only strange thing to me was that there was only one other aircraft. But other than that, they were very nice to us. And all the 55 boxes were laid out inside the airport, which was very nicely air conditioned. So overall, it was really nice, you know, atmosphere to pick it up.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Is it a big airport there?
MS. JIN: It was a fairly good-sized airport. We couldn’t really get into any other areas, but we were right next to the immigration and customs area. That’s where they had all the 55 boxes laid out. Overall, it wasn’t a very small airport. It wasn’t too big, but it was decent sized. And then once we were done, they took us to the VIP room to provide us with some snacks and coffee. It was really nice.
MR. SCHWARTZ: For our listeners, where is Wonsan in North Korea?
MS. JIN: Wonsan is one of the major cities on the east coast of North Korea. And it’s south of Hungnam Port. Hungnam Port was one of the major ports during the Korean War where we actually evacuated after the Chosin – the Battle of Chosin. So it’s one of the major cities and also Kim Jong-un’s birthplace. So both of my grandparents from my maternal and paternal side, they are originally from North Korea. And they came down during the Korean War. And my grandfather came down through the Hungnam Port. And my maternal grandmother was captured in Wonsan by the North Koreans. So, you know, as a child, you grow up listening to the stories and you really don’t pay too much attention to the stories. But when I went there, it felt very strange. And it made me a little emotional that I’m back in a place where my grandmother suffered so much, but yet in a completely different circumstances. So it was very personal to me.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Wow. That’s truly incredible.
I want to bring Dr. Cha in. The last time the United States received remains that were repatriated was in 2007. And, Victor, you were part of that. What was it like then? And maybe you and Jennie can talk about the difference in your experiences, or the similarities.
VICTOR CHA: Sure. Prior to Jennie’s mission, the last time that we received remains from the North Koreans was in April of 2007. And at that time, I was at the White House on the NSC. And I went with then-Governor Bill Richardson and former Secretary of Veteran Affairs Anthony Principi to North Korea to retrieve what were, I think, Jennie, seven sets of remains. Is that right?
MS. JIN: Yes.
MR. CHA: Seven sets of remains. We did not land in Wonsan. We landed at Sunan Airport, which is the main international airport closest to the capital city of North Korea. And then we had basically I think two or three days of conversations with our counterparts. And for me, what was significant was that our counterparts for those two and a half days were all uniformed military. When I had been working on the nuclear talks with North Korea, the six-party talks in Beijing, all of our counterparts there were foreign ministry. So this was actually the first I’ve had interaction with uniformed military. So, I mean, Jennie can speak to this as well, this particular project itself – the return of POW/MIA remains – I feels is really a KPA, Korean People’s Army, project. And they’re – at least in my case, they were the primary interlocutors.
But we brought back seven sets of remains. And I’m sure you’ll talk later with Jennie about how this is all done, but I think six of the seven were identified. Is that right, Jennie, or?
MS. JIN: Yes. That’s correct.
MR. CHA: Yeah. Six of the seven sets were identified –
MR. SCHWARTZ: Were identified as U.S.
MR. CHA: Were identified – positively identified as U.S. I mean, I can tell you, I mean, it was an interesting trip overall. But when I look back on my time at the White House, it was one of the most meaningful things I felt like I was able to do, because it actually mattered for real people – like, real people.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right. You were bringing home the remains of loved ones that they hadn’t retrieved, obviously. So they had – they had closure.
MR. CHA: Right. Yeah.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Jennie, what was your experience over there? Were you dealing with army officials as well?
MS. JIN: Yes. Just like what Victor said, the North Koreans made it very clear from the get-go when met them at Panmungak, which is the north side of the DMZ, in their building to discuss the repatriation and potential recovery in the future, it was all KPA soldiers. And they made it clear that this is between the KPA and the United States Department of Defense. So everyone who interacted, including the linguists and everybody, they were all uniformed soldiers.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Can you both explain to us, how does this work? This process? Obviously it’s important to negotiations, but it’s even more important to the families that are receiving home their loved ones. Explain to us how this process with the North Koreans works.
MR. CHA: Let me sort of speak on where it fits in the broader policy, and then I’ll let Jennie speak about the actual how they do this – because it’s amazing work, I mean, you know, that these people do at Hickam Air Force Base.
In terms of the broader picture, there are differences between what happened in April 2007 and Jennie Jin’s experiences this past July. For one, in 2007 we were actually in the middle of a crisis with North Korea. And one of the reasons why the whole project of joint excavation of remains was stopped by Secretary Rumsfeld, at the time, was that he made the argument that if we are at a crisis with North Korea, these people potentially could be taken as hostages. So it was, at least in words, a national security threat at a time of crisis that caused the secretary of defense to stop – to stop these projects. Now, if you talk to people who were on these projects, they never felt at any time that they were being threatened. And I think the real reason that Secretary Rumsfeld didn’t like it is he didn’t like the idea of paying money for the North Koreans for the expenses that were incurred during some of these operations.
This time, it’s a very different context. This was actually one of the four do-outs or deliverables from the Singapore summit, right? There were four big things. And this was the most specific of the four. And in many ways, you know, Jennie was basically going on a mission that the two presidents – the presidents of the two countries had agreed to, which would be the return of the remains. So it’s a very different – I would say that when we did it in 2007, it was a small piece of a – of a broader denuclearization negotiation that was not going well, and at this time, when Jennie did it, I mean, this is actually elevated a great deal in both its presence – its prominence in the policy process, because it was actually one thing that the two leaders agreed on that they actually are doing. And so it gives it a lot more prominence.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Should it be elevated?
MR. CHA: Well, I mean, I certainly think that retrieving and identifying the remains of soldiers who have been missing since the Korean War is very important. I think it’s very important. Should it be at a high politics policy level? I would probably say maybe not, I mean, because it distracts from the core issues of, you know, we need a declaration from them. You know, if they want – and before a declaration we need to see changes in terms of conventional force deployments on the ground. I mean, those are sort of the core issues for peace and security. Having said that, the two presidents – the two leaders decide to make this one of the four things. And if they do that, then it has prominence no matter what.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right. And it gives – it gives the two countries something to work on and to build on.
MR. CHA: Yeah. And there’s a very credible argument to be made that if you are trying to end the war between the two countries there is no more important symbol of reconciliation than returning war dead, right? I mean, there’s – it’s hard to argue against that.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Jennie, can you tell us about the K208 Project that you direct?
MS. JIN: So the K208 Project refers to the analysis and identification of the remains that we received from North Korea in the early ’90s. They gave us 208 boxes over five years. And the largest repatriation that happened, like, at a given time was 33 sets back then. So this time we got 55 sets. So it’s actually the largest repatriation – the single repatriation that we received. So those are the remains. And most of them turned out to be Americans. And then, starting from ’96 to 2005, for 10 years we went into North Korea to conduct 33 missions – recovery missions with the North Koreans. And we brought back a significant number of missing Americans. And then now we got additional 55 sets. So all of these will be incorporated to a larger Korean War project at the DPAA.
MR. SCHWARTZ: How do you go about doing your work?
MS. JIN: For the new 55 sets we brought in, we are almost done with the inventory. So we open each box, which we actually did in Wonsan. Briefly, we looked at each boxes. And with the North Korean soldiers present, we will look at what’s in the boxes to make sure there are no, like, animal bones or anything like that. So we did that cursory review in Wonsan. We did it one more time at Osan Air Base. And now we have done in the laboratory. So we went into much more detail of which skeletal elements we received in each boxes, and if – to see if they are actually one individual or not . That can be determined based on the morphology of the bones, and all various things – the size and shape.
So once that’s done, that’s almost completed now, we will sample the bones for DNA. These bones are not in a very good condition, meaning it’s not a complete skeleton from head to toes. And that’s what we expected based on what we received in the ’90s, because it’s just the natural way of decomposing. So it’s rare to see a complete skeleton unless the body was buried in a cemetery.
MR. SCHWARTZ: How do you go about identifying each service person?
MS. JIN: So once we take all the DNA samples, they will be shipped to our DNA laboratory in Dover, Delaware, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. They process all the DNA samples for us. And then they compare the DNA results to the family reference samples of the missing Americans from the Korean War to see if there any match. So once that’s done – DNA doesn’t work like magic. So sometimes, like, even if there is a DNA sequence, there could be multiple service members matching the same DNA sequence. Then we have to go further with different analysis. What we can do is chest radiograph comparison. So if we have clavicle bones, like the collar bones present, then we can take an x-ray of the collar bone and then compare that to the antemortem chest radiographs that these guys took when they joined the service back in the ’50s and compare that to see if they’re – we could find a potential match. So it’s almost like dental comparison.
MR. SCHWARTZ: That’s pretty incredible.
MR. CHA: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
MS. JIN: And then of course – yeah, it’s a fascinating method. And we can also do dental comparison, looking at the dental morphology. And if there’s any restorations, then we can compare that to the missing service member’s antemortem records. So combining all of these, we make an ID, like, with multiple lines of evidence. It’s very rare to see, like, OK, this is a DNA hit and we identify this person as that person. That only happens – that doesn’t happen that often with the remains that are this old.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So what can you tell us about the current efforts on the 55 boxes of remains? Do you have a timeline or how far have you gotten?
MS. JIN: So we are about to finish the inventory process. There are a lot of bones. And for each bone we have to take measurements to make sure we capture that before any DNA samples are taken. That will assist us in the future with further analysis. So that’s where we are at now. And we will begin DNA sampling next week, which will take us several weeks to complete. Once that’s done, all the samples will be shipped to our DNA laboratory and there rolled into the regular casework. So we are – unless there is a compelling reason to prioritize those samples over other casework samples that we already have, they will be processed as regular samples.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And, Victor, what’s happening on the policy side while all this is going on?
MR. CHA: So, a couple of things. Is I would imagine that there is – so, I don’t know where these remains sit in the queue. But I would imagine they move pretty far to the top because I’m pretty sure that the White House would like to see these – you know, be able to say that these have been identified.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
MR. CHA: I mean, in the broader policy scheme, I mean, like I said, people look at this in one of two ways. And both ways are right. One way to look at it is that this is something the two leaders agreed on. It’s something the North Koreans have done unilaterally. It’s a confidence-building measure that builds trust before the core nuclear negotiations, right? And there are a lot of people who would take that view, right? There are others who would look at it and say this is actually an effort to distract – not America effort to distract. But a North Korean effort to distract from the core issue, which is the nuclear negotiation, by offering these other things that are politically quite important for the president, that look good, but that in the end will, you know, take that away from the nuclear issue. Now, I think if you talk to people inside the Beltway in Washington, probably most of them are of the second view. But I think if you get outside the Beltway in Washington and you go to Hawaii or you go to any other place, they’d be, like, this is a wonderful thing.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. It’s an emotional, meaningful issue.
MR. CHA: It’s an emotional, wonderful thing. And I have to tell you, I remember when we brought back those sets of remains and, you know, Jennie’s team identified them. And I heard later back from the Pentagon that these had been identified. You know, I went to the punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii and I looked up these names. And I saw them on the – you see them on the wall.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. That’s really incredible.
MR. CHA: These men were missing in action. They were never accounted for.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And they’re finally home.
MR. CHA: And they’re finally home. So that’s – you know, that’s real. That is very real.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What happens once a U.S. serviceman’s positively identified?
MR. CHA: That’s a good question. (Laughs.) So I asked. And at least at the punchbowl cemetery what they told us is that they don’t take the name off the wall, but in the records, the records are adjusted to show that this individual is no longer considered – because these names are, you know, engraved in white marble on these – you know, these arching white marble walls at the cemetery. But I don’t know. I don’t know if Jennie – that’s all I know about it. I don’t know if Jennie knows more.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, what – Jennie, in the technical process of identifying, what happens after you identify somebody? What’s the next part of the process?
MS. JIN: The DPAA’s job ends with the signing – medical examiner signing off on the identification. So we have two medical examiners making the identification. They are the identification authorities. And once that’s done, then we send it to what’s called the Service Casualty Office. So they deal with the current accounting and the past accounting. And those are the groups. They are pretty amazing. They are the ones that contact the families to give the notification and then set up the funeral and then transportation of the remains, and et cetera.
MR. CHA: I’ve been out to this lab. And it’s just – it’s not only great, it’s really cool. It’s just a cool place.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. CHA: Can you, like, describe for the listeners what the lab is? Like, what it looks like?
MS. JIN: Yeah, sure. So it’s DPAA, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. And it was established in January of 2015. And third floor is all of our laboratories. When you walk into our laboratory you will see big panel glasses. And behind those glasses you will see all the bones laid out on about 70 big tables. So each table has the remains of American service members that we are actively analyzing and trying to identify.
MR. SCHWARTZ: It’s like CSI for the military.
MR. CHA: Yeah, yeah, exactly, yeah. And they have, like, the – you can see, like, on tables, they have these sets that they’re working on. And you can see they’ve put pieces of the skeleton back together. You know, they may be missing a femur, they may be missing an arm, but they’re actively trying to put these – you know, put these skeletons back together.
MR. SCHWARTZ: How far has the technology advanced since 2007? Is it much different today than it was when Victor was working on this in 2007, Jennie?
MS. JIN: Yes. So it’s a lot better now. So we have a different type of DNA testing. That’s one of the most crucial things that happens. So now there is a way for our DNA lab to retrieve whatever miniscule amount of DNA is still left in these almost 70-year-old bones. SO that actually changed a lot. That helped us with making more identification. And the chest radiograph comparison method that I mentioned to you before, that’s a new method that the analysts at DPAA actually came – invented, so to speak. So we are in a better position now.
The only issue is we have 90 percent of the Korean War missing – we have their family reference samples for DNA. But we’re still missing the 10 percent. And as time goes by family members probably won’t be around. So that’s a – that’s a challenge for us.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So when you have the 55 sets of remains fully researched, what happens after that, Victor? Is there going to be more negotiations between the White House and the North Koreans? How many more remains do we think are over there?
MR. CHA: Yeah. Yeah. So I think – and Jennie can speak to this as well since she actually participated in the negotiations. So my – the sense I have is that the North Koreans have offered these 55 sets of remains as a goodwill gesture. But what they really want to do is restart joint excavation operations – or, joint – I can’t remember the technical term for it. But the recovery of remains operations that, as Jennie said, was going on for quite some time, until it was stopped in 2005. You know, my sense is that the North Korean KPA would like to restart those projects. And part of the reason I think is because they see it as a way to also gain hard currency. But clearly that’s not the only reason. And I’m sure Jennie can speak to, you know, what those – what those actual remains recovery operations are like, like what they actually do out there.
MS. JIN: So Victor’s right. This was – I see it as a goodwill gesture too. So they really wanted to discuss about the joint recovery operations that they want. They want us in the country. So I don’t know where that’ll happen, but we are preparing to talk to them to reengage in the joint recovery operations. When we actually go in, I’ve never been. But according to my colleagues, you go out to a site that the North Koreans tell you where to go. So we didn’t have any freedom to choose the site. So that was – that was a big issue with us. But wherever they took us, we – most of the time, we found remains. So are those all American remains? Hmm, we’re not sure. But we did find a significant number of American remains.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Jennie, I’m sure that, you know, every American would thank you for your work. And this is really interesting insight into a process that we don’t know anything about.
MS. JIN: It was my honor to participate.
MR. CHA: Yeah. You know, I think – like I said, I think that this is one of these projects that, for one, I don’t know of any other country in the world that – you know, that hires people like Jennie, that devotes the time, the resources to recovery of war remains. You know, so, you know, it’s really an example for every other country out there that the United States does this. They – you know, they leave no one behind. They always look to find everybody.
The other thing I would say – and this is just putting my academic hat on – is that I think it’s really cool the way that, you know, people like Jennie – I mean, you know, forensic anthropologists and scientists and people like Jennie – get involved in a project like this that has real ramifications for the overall tenor of the relationship between the United States and North Korea, two countries that are sworn enemies, right? And if you ever think of one thing in terms of reconciliation that’s at the tip of the spear, it would have to be something like this, right?
So there’s a lot of people who criticize Trump because of the Singapore summit. There’s not enough specificity. The one specific thing in that joint statement was on POW/MIA remains. And that is moving forward, as we see, with 55 sets already in her position.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Real results delivered.
MR. CHA: Yeah, real results. Real results. And, you know, I think it will be not just rewarding for the families, but I think it’ll make everybody feel good when we find out, like, who of these 55 sets – you know, who has been positively identified. You know, every time one of these things happens, you read about it. Like, if it’s so-and-so from, I don’t know, Plainsboro, New Jersey, you know, there’s a story that you read about. This is who the guy was, you know, in 1953 and things. So it becomes – it’s very real and it becomes very local right away. And so it’s really amazing work.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And it’s not often in this debate, in this set of policy issues, that we do have real results that we can point to.
MR. CHA: Real results that we can point to, and that everybody can claim as a success, that’s not a zero sum, right? Because everything in our relationship with North Korea is – like the other day the Treasury Department put more secondary sanctions on Chinese and Russian companies that looked like they were going business with North Korea. That’s a win for us, but it’s not a win for the Chinese, the Russians, or the North Koreans, right? But this is something that everybody can point to as being positive, you know, all the way around. So it’s one of these rare spaces in policy where everybody wins. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHWARTZ: We’ll take any win we can get when it comes to North Korea.
MR. CHA: Yeah.
MS. JIN: I was at the Korean Cold War family briefing last week in D.C. And that’s where the government gives an update to the accounting community, and also the families of what we have done in the past year. So it’s always a big meeting. But this time, it was the biggest meeting ever in the past 19 years. We used – we usually have about 400 families show up. But this time close to 800 families showed up. So that shows you the interest. And during the meeting, in those 55 sets of boxes, there was one dog tag present. And we were able to deliver the dog tag to the two sons who actually came to the meeting. So that was a quite touching moment.
MR. SCHWARTZ: If you have a question for one of our experts about The Impossible State, email us at email@example.com.
If you want to dive deeper into the issues surrounding North Korea, check out Beyond Parallel. That’s our micro website that’s dedicated to bringing a better understanding of the Korean Peninsula. You can find it at beyondparallel.csis.org.
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