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What Diplomacy Means For The Korean War's Missing Soldiers


Had things gone according to plan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have been back from fresh talks with North Korea by now. Instead President Trump canceled last week's trip. Those watching for progress in the talks include the families of some 5,000 American soldiers still unaccounted for on North Korean territory. Here's Jay Price of member station WUNC.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: In a hotel not far from Arlington National Cemetery, nearly 800 people fill a vast meeting room. And nearly everyone has a story of loss that's rippled through generations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He went down, leaving my mother with five children under the age of 7.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was 3 years old. My sister was born three days later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My grandfather was so distraught not with just the loss but the unknown he ended up taking his own life.

PRICE: Every year, the federal government invites the families of Korean War missing to a meeting like this. They hear updates on diplomatic efforts with North Korea, learn about advances in the science of identifying long-buried remains and go into back rooms for private updates on their individual cases.

JENNIFER CASTALDI: You come each year hoping to have just a little bit of new news or glimmer of hope or possibility that maybe - maybe - one day we'll bring him home.

PRICE: Jennifer Castaldi of Winston-Salem, N.C., has been coming to these meetings for nearly a decade. She calls it a mission - a mission to bring closure to her family. Her uncle, PFC Marshall Bush - the family called him Lin - vanished in late 1950 during notoriously fierce fighting near the Chosin Reservoir.

CASTALDI: And my Uncle Lin writes, (reading) dear folks, I'm hoping that this letter finds you all well.

PRICE: Eight days earlier, he had mailed his last letter home.

CASTALDI: (Reading) All of the boys are talking about what they're going to do when they get home, and I've been thinking of the same thing.

PRICE: Attendance at this year's meeting was the largest ever. And there was good news on several fronts. Just days earlier, 55 new boxes of remains reached the United States, one with a dog tag which was presented to the family. And military officials said they'll disinter hundreds of other unidentified U.S. remains that were buried in Hawaii shortly after the war. Families are optimistic that advances in DNA science will help identify many of those service members, too.

CASTALDI: I've been to a few meetings where there was nothing positive shared, no information. Families were crying, frustrated, yelling at each other. And that's not the atmosphere now.

PRICE: The efforts that the United States takes to recover and identify its war missing are unique and relatively recent. They began in the mid-1960s when families of Vietnam POWs and MIAs started organizing. Family members say the Pentagon agency overseeing the work was dysfunctional until it was reorganized three years ago.

RICHARD DOWNES: In terms of the families, we were not a partner. It was hard to get information. It was hard to get cooperation.

PRICE: Richard Downes is president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs.

DOWNES: And then something happened to the chemistry of it all. They call us. The exchanges are on the highest level now.

PRICE: He says, though, there have been too many ups and downs in the volatile relations between the U.S. and North Korea to feel confident about a permanent thaw or getting U.S. recovery teams back into the reclusive country.

DOWNES: We're at a tipping point. These things have happened before. We've tipped backwards. We hope this time to tip forward.

PRICE: Another hope for the families - that they'll soon have something more of their missing relatives than just memories and old letters.

CASTALDI: (Reading) Well, there isn't anything else to write about. So until next time, adios.

PRICE: For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Alexandria, Va.