US, North Korea Discuss War Dead as Nuclear Dispute Simmers

US and North Korean officials met Sunday to discuss the return of remains of American soldiers killed almost seven decades ago during the Korean War, with the talks offering a chance to ease tensions between the two sides as they argue over disarmament issues.

The meeting began around 10 a.m. Seoul time at the border village of Panmunjom, and it was unclear how long the talks last, Bloomberg reported, citing unidentified government and US military officials.

The negotiations were the first working-level talks since US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month ended with North Korea denouncing the US’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” The Sunday meeting was initially set for Thursday, but was rescheduled after the North Koreans failed to show.

The US Department of Defense estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from some 5,300 American military personnel who went missing during the three-year conflict that ended in 1953. Their recovery has long been among the most emotionally charged issues between the two sides. Caskets that the US shipped to the border last month have not been filled, despite Kim Jong-un’s pledge during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump to immediately repatriate identified remains.

  Easy Concession

While recovering the war dead would provide Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three living American detainees, it would do little to advance the goal of dismantling North Korea’s weapons program. The US also risks giving the North Koreans leverage to continue diplomacy and drag out disarmament talks.

“They might eventually return them as a sop to the diplomatic process, but it’s an easy concession to make and it doesn’t really contribute toward denuclearization in any way,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “The question is how long Trump will play along with this before it becomes clear that diplomacy is going nowhere.”

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