On Monday, U.S. Army veterans Philip Jackson and Kirt Robins, both 85, walked toward a towering memorial building at the heart of Seoul’s National Cemetery. Flanked by South Korean soldiers in ceremonial uniform, the two longtime friends were part of a delegation of about 50 American veterans who had traveled to the South Korean capital on a government-subsidized program to honor foreign troops who served during the Korean War.
“We’re both widowers, our wives both died of Alzheimer’s, so, it’s something to do,” said Robins, who has known Jackson since their childhoods in southern Utah.
South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs has run such programs for Korean War veterans from 21 U.N. allied nations since 1975. But Jackson and Robins’ late-June trip coincides with an unprecedented, if cautious, hope for peace on the peninsula, which has remained technically at war since an armistice was signed in July 1953, a few months before they began their service here. It also comes as the relatives of soldiers who went missing more than 60 years ago anxiously await the possibility of their loved ones’ remains being returned, following a pledge made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to U.S. President Donald Trump when the pair met in Singapore on June 12.
United States Forces Korea (USFK) this weekend moved scores of wooden caskets to the inter-Korean border in the hopes of receiving the remains of about 200 soldiers who died in the 1950-53 war. Following Trump’s false claim last week that the U.S. had already received the remains of the “great fallen heroes”, Secretary of State James Mattis confirmed Sunday that the U.N. Command in South Korea was “prepared, now,” to receive them.
Jackson, who was stationed in Seoul from October 1953 said that the recent thaw in U.S.–North Korea relations and the prospect of recovering the remains of soldiers from the U.S. and other U.N. allied nations were both “marvelous” things.
Broader hopes for peace, however, are tempered by the vague language of the two leaders’ mutual commitment to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. The declaration they signed in Singapore did not apply the terms “verifiable” and “irreversible” to denuclearization, which the Trump administration had previously insisted upon in return for providing security guarantees. Many analysts are skeptical Kim will give up nukes since similar deals have collapsed in the past.
Moreover, 10 days after his Twitter boast that Pyongyang “is no longer a nuclear threat,” Trump renewed sanctions on the Kim regime and made a rhetorical about-face, citing the “extraordinary threat” posed by its nuclear weapons.
‘I’m sure their hopes are soaring’
At the cemetery, bugles sounded and incense sweetened the heavy air as a member of Jackson and Robins’ veterans delegation laid a wreath before the memorial. The imposing building contains tablets honoring approximately 104,000 soldiers who died during the Korean War but whose bodies were never found, along with the remains of approximately 7,000 unknown soldiers. Robins said that during a moment’s silence he thought about a Utah friend a couple of school years ahead of him, Dan Burns, who was wounded “in the thick of it” before he and Jackson arrived.
Thousands of Americans have not been able to properly mourn lost friends and relatives. Of the 7,697 U.S. troops still unaccounted for from the Korean War, some 5,300 went missing in North Korea. Piecemeal efforts to discover what happened to them—including collaborative efforts with North Korea from 1996 to 2005 that saw the collection of 229 caskets of bones and personal effects—have led to the identification of only 459 sets of remains, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
If the repatriation agreed between Trump and Kim—the first in over a decade—goes ahead, approximately 200 sets of remains the regime says it has identified as Americans will be transferred from North Korea to the U.S. air base in Osan, south of Seoul, and then sent for forensic analysis at Hickam Air Base in Hawaii. But families hoping for confirmation of the fate of their relatives could face a long wait: hundreds of sets of remains repatriated more than 20 years ago have yet to be identified.
Rick Downes, President of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War Prisoners of War and Soldiers Missing in Action, told TIME Saturday that although the odds of a family finding a loved one’s remains among the imminently expected 200 are long, their return would be meaningful for thousands of Americans.
His father Hal went missing after his plane went down over North Korea in 1952; his mother, now 92, still does not know what happened to her husband. “If I could sit down with her and say, “mom, dad’s home,” that would be pretty strong,” he said.
Including those listed as missing in action, more than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the conflict. More than two million Korean soldiers and civilians on both sides, and 600,000 Chinese troops, were killed or went missing.
In Seoul, Robins thumbed through photographs taken in Korea in the 1950s. In one, he wears his cap and olive green fatigues and gestures toward a signboard showing the divided peninsula, in another, he grins with Army buddies. On account of them having taken typing in high school, he and Jackson both served as company clerks in the Army. They had taken trips to Tokyo on R&R, returned to Utah with friends across the breadth of the U.S., and the military paid for their university educations. He told TIME that it was “very important” the U.S. recovered the remains of those who went missing, because “that’s the commitment they’ve made.”
The scenes in Robins’ photographs bare scant resemblance to South Korea today and the pair have been struck by the beauty and modernity of Seoul, which Robins said “was pretty much destroyed” during the war. The destruction wrought above the 38th parallel was severer still. The U.S. dropped more ordinance in Korea in the 1950s than it did in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. Gen. Curtis LeMay, who headed the Strategic Air Command, later told Air Force historians that “Over a period of three years or so we killed off, what, 20% of the population of Korea, as direct casualties of war or from starvation and exposure?”
The devastation the U.S. afflicted has long been a staple topic of the education system in North Korea, where textbooks depict Americans as hook-nosed goblins. Each year, Pyongyang holds a month-long war commemoration, replete with nationalist propaganda and culminating in a national holiday celebrating “Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War.” But in a sign of the growing detente following the Singapore summit, AP reports that this year Pyongyang quietly skipped the annual “day of struggle against U.S. imperialism” rally, which usually marks the anniversary of the war’s start.
Any sign of a thaw would be welcome to the many American families who have been affected by the Korean War.
“I’m sure their hopes are soaring,” said Downes, who adds that the prospect of remains being returned offers grieving families a chance to “fill their own emptiness” and “a wound that has existed in them for decades.”