I have written twice in recent weeks about servicemen who went missing in the Korean War. While the Pentagon focuses on returning those killed in action, a small number of American servicemen were confirmed alive and taken prisoner but were not returned upon the Armistice. Time suggests these men are no longer alive but, regardless, the failure to close their files means that their families do not have the comfort of closure. Many of these, not by coincidence, were held prisoner not in North Korean-run camps, but rather in Chinese-administered camps in North Korea.
Over the decades, the Pentagon has acted shamefully, telling families their missing were dead, despite having confirmation of their prisoner status and, in some cases, despite having subsequently launched attempts to rescue them.
On June 19, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter appointed Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington to lead the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the organization in charge of accounting for and returning the remains of lost servicemen. As DPAA leader, Linnington has continued the agency focus on excavating for downed airmen. While the DPAA subsequently met with the families of the Korean War missing, that meeting appears to have been more about feigning concern rather than a sincere desire to resolve their cases.
Here’s the problem: According to the DPAA’s own newsletter, the agency seeks to sign a new three-year technical agreement with the Peoples’ Liberation Army Archives Department which will pay China for its assistance in resolving the case of downed World War II aircraft in Yunnan, and downed Korean War-era aircraft in Liaoning. Now, the DPAA should certainly bring closure to the families of the missing pilots, but it should not turn its back on prisoners whose fate was sealed by China’s refusal to uphold the Geneva Conventions and basic laws of warfare. In short, the first step in any cooperation with China is for the Chinese government to tell the United States exactly what exactly they did with the American prisoners whom they held alive and under their own control but never returned.
About a decade ago, I criticized Linnington for prioritizing public relations above truth. With the United States facing significant challenges from China on economic, diplomatic, and military fronts, the White House and Pentagon leadership may prefer simply to let bygones be bygones. Enough time has passed, however, that such information, however recriminating, is not going to cause a diplomatic crisis nor risk a nuclear war. Instead, it would enable a more solid foundation for Sino-American ties based less on diplomatic mirages and more on reality. More importantly, it is the right thing to do.