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— The village elder put his shovel aside, stooped down by a scraggly bush and pulled a sack from the freshly turned dirt. Spreading open the sack, he reached in to reveal femurs, skull and jaw fragments, boots and a rusted green helmet.

“These are your American GIs,” Song Hong Ik said at a burial mound near the top of a small hill.

Perhaps they are. But for more than a decade, no one has been trying to find out.

“Until They Are Home” is one of the most sacred vows of the U.S. military, yet Washington has long suspended efforts to look for 5,300 American GIs missing in North Korea whose remains are potentially recoverable. The countries’ abysmal relations suggest that no restart is coming soon.

In the meantime, possible remains and recovery sites are being lost as North Korea works to improve its infrastructure with projects such as the Chongchon River No. 10 Hydroelectric Power Station. The bones Song revealed came from that project’s construction site.

Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea search teams conducted 33 joint recovery operations and recovered 229 sets of American remains. Washington broke them off because it claimed the safety of its searchers was not guaranteed.

Talks to restart recovery work resumed in 2011, only to fall apart after North Korea launched a rocket condemned by the U.S. as a banned test of ballistic missile technology. There has been no progress since.

More than 7,800 U.S. troops remain lost and unrecovered from the Korean War. About 5,300 were lost in North Korea.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, most died in major battles or as prisoners of war. Others died “along the wayside or in small villages” and many of the losses from aircraft crashes also occurred near battle zones or roads connecting them.

“The Department of Defense is committed to achieving the fullest possible accounting,” Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter, a DPAA spokeswoman, told the AP. “U.S. efforts to recover Korean War remains are a humanitarian effort for our missing servicemen, their families and the American people.”

Even so, Maj. Natasha Waggoner, another spokeswoman for the agency, said there is no schedule “at this time” to hold talks to send any search teams back.

“Those of us who fought there really feel it’s a travesty that we haven’t been able to get there and try to find those that were killed or died in the prison camps,” said Larry Kinard, who fought in Korea with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and is now president of the 15,000-member Korean War Veterans Association. He noted that since 1982 only 332 Korean War remains have been accounted for.

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