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Richardson: North Korea offers to return remains of U.S. troops

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Seoul 'hot line' possible
  • Richardson says the offer is a "very positive gesture"
  • A veterans association president says it may be difficult to identify the bodies
  • More than 8,000 U.S. service members remain missing from the Korean War
  • The U.S. has temporarily suspended trips to look for troop remains in North Korea

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- A top North Korean general offered Sunday to help return the remains of several hundred U.S. troops killed during the Korean War, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Maj. Gen. Pak Rim Su told Richardson that the bodies were discovered recently in North Korea.

Richardson, who is meeting with officials in North Korea to help ease tensions in the region, described the offer as a "very positive gesture."

Any returned remains are "better than nothing," Korean War Veterans Association President Bill Mac Swain said. But he noted that there were possible pitfalls.

"I'm worried that what we'll get is a bunch of stuff that we'll never be able to figure out," he said.

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Investigators are still trying to identify many of the bodies from more than 200 boxes stuffed with remains and personal items that North Korea sent back to the United States between 1990 and 1994, he said.

"The problem is the bones were scattered in boxes. There were all kinds of different things that made it very difficult for them to even determine how many people were in the boxes," Mac Swain said.

The Korean War ended at midnight on July 27, 1953, after three years of fighting that left millions dead -- including just more than 54,000 U.S. troops, according to the Department of Defense.

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More than 8,000 U.S. service members remain missing from the Korean War, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.

For more than four decades, U.S. attempts to persuade North Korea to return additional U.S. remains were unsuccessful.

But between 1990 and 1994, North Korea exhumed and returned what it claimed were 208 sets of remains in 208 boxes.

In 2007, on the eve of preliminary peace talks, North Korea handed over four sets of remains believed to be those of American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The remains, in aluminum coffins, were delivered by North Korean soldiers to United Nations honor guards during a brief rain-drenched ceremony in Panmunjom on the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. They were recovered in the North's Unsan County, where about 350 Americans are thought to have been killed in fighting between U.S. and Chinese troops shortly after China entered the war on the side of North Korea.

At that time, 209 sets of remains had been returned to the United States; only seven had been identified.

Before 1996, most of the remains excavated and returned by North Korea were in too poor condition to identify. The United States asked North Korea to stop further exhumation until an agreement was made for joint recovery. That agreement gave the United States access to the reclusive communist country to look for evidence of U.S. soldiers killed during the war.

But the U.S. government temporarily suspended such trips into North Korea in 2005, according to the Defense Prison of War/Missing Personnel Office.

Mac Swain, 80, said that finding remains isn't just an issue of statistics and science.

"From my company there's two people that are missing in action. We don't really know anything about them, and this is 60 years later. ... I would like for them to be able to find these two guys," he said.

But North Korea's motives may not be altruistic, Mac Swain said.

"I'm afraid it's more political than it is humanitarian. ... They use our dead to further their gains. That's another way to look at it. ... But we need to find (the missing). We need to bring them home," he said.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Catherine E. Shoichet, Greg Botelho and Brian Walker contributed to this report.

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