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N. Korea summit raises hopes for POW/MIA families

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 17. 2018 9:36PM

PORTSMOUTH — The North Korean summit was about high stakes negotiations on the world stage with an American President and North Korean dictator hoping common ground could relatively soon end a war before it will turn 70 years old in 2020.

For Rick Downes of Portsmouth, the goal is more basic and intensely personal, namely that these talks could eventually lead to recovering the remains of his dad, Lt. Hal Downes, missing since the B-26 bomber he was on was shot down over Korea in 1952.

Rick was only 3 years old.

“There is a lot of work to do but it’s nice to have this door open and now we have to pass through it and see what we can bring out over the other side,” Downes said.

Downes never got to know his dad but created a heartfelt blog using photographs of the two that try to fill in the gaps.

“When an unexplained loss happens to someone that is so critical in your life, whether it’s your brother, your husband or your dad, there is a wound that happens,” he said. “And it just doesn’t heal until you learn what happened.”

Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, had reason to celebrate after President Trump revealed he’d gotten a last-minute topic into the punch list from his 40-minute private sit-down with Kim Jong Un last week.

This had for the first time both sides committing to recovery of remains of prisoners of war and soldiers that had been missing in action. The Department of Defense estimates there are 5,300 unaccounted for American soldiers from that war.

Downes credits an aggressive, behind-the-scenes lobbying effort with convincing Trump to put this issue on the front burner — right behind getting North Korea to disarm its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the U.S. pledging to assure the security of Kim’s regime.

“We were working with families and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to get word up to the highest level as we could to get this onto the agenda. I think family members emailing right to the White House website helped ... it really was a coming together of a lot of elements to make this happen.”

The discussion regarding remains has been dormant between the principals of the two countries since 2005.

“The North Koreans have offered from time to time to return some of these remains that they have collected but both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations did not respond to these offers,” Downes said.

He said most remains are concentrated in three major areas, the burial grounds at POW camps, the Chosin Reservoir and the Unsan battle zone.

There’s also the demilitarized zone or DMZ, which reportedly holds the remains of another 1,000 GIs.

POW/MIA vigil

The summit took place a few days before the 30th annual POW/MIA vigil along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, the oldest such event in the United States.

“We have no idea. Once you start in this and hear their stories it is impossible to walk away,” said Bob Jones, a founder of the event and an outspoken advocate for the cause.

Nearly 1,500 turned out for the event. It marked the 25th Freedom Ride, a caravan of pro-veteran bikers who began this yearly trip to “The Rock” monument in Hesky Park.

Jones has charged the Pentagon with letting the POW/MIA issue fade into the background of public consciousness by avoiding the use of POW/MIAs as a term because in the case of Korea, missing soldiers weren’t combatants in a declared war.

“The young people have very little knowledge about what has been going on. They don’t understand how serious an issue this is and the idea that history can repeat itself,” Jones said.

‘A positive change’

Downes said for recovery of remains to succeed, the government must commit more resources to it. Over the course of his activism, he’s seen the Pentagon bureaucracy go from denial to a more forward-looking position.

“This is a big change; a positive change. The perspective now is much more positive and more proactive,” Downes said. “When you stop and look at what is being done, it is fascinating and it is amazing.”

Downes made his own visit to North Korea in 2016 to the site where his dad’s bomber was believed to have gone down. He went at the invitation of former UN Ambassador and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s Center for Global Engagement.

“Are my sister and I, and my mother who is still with us, going to actually learn what is going to happen over there,” he asked. “It depends on what they put into it. This is more than a political decision, It is more about getting this done and having this be part of a lasting legacy for these talks.”

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