Carnegie Mellon University
zliu_phd_his_2020.pdf (4.44 MB)

Forgotten War, Unforgotten Bodies: Locating, Repatriating, and Identifying the Remains of American Servicemen Missing in Korea, 1950-2018

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posted on 2020-05-18, 22:20 authored by Zhaokun LiuZhaokun Liu
The bodies of people who die during political purges, genocides, and wars carry multivalent political values. This dissertation argues that the remains of US servicemen lost during the Korean War had a second life amid the political strife between the United States and the DPRK after 1953. Domestically, uncertainty over the servicemen’s fate due to the loss of their remains caused their relatives to doubt the US government’s Cold War policies; internationally, the remains were associated with both the unending saber-rattling between the two countries and their concurrent attempts at cooperation. Besides their traditional roles in familial mourning and war memory, the soldiers’ remains became bargaining chips in US-DPRK relations.
Utilizing archival materials, periodicals, and interviews with the relatives of missing soldiers, this dissertation analyzes the repatriation of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean Peninsula since 1950. The US military adopted a milestone policy during the Korean War—repatriating all deceased servicemen to their homeland as quickly as possible. Because of this policy and the war’s inconclusive result, it was forced to negotiate with its enemy to recover the lost bodies in areas in which it had no access and to develop new forensic methods to minimize the number of unidentifiable remains. Procedures for identification differed significantly from those in previous conflicts.
While the fate of thousands of servicemen remained uncertain, some American pundits and politicians depicted them as hostages of the Communist Bloc and recruited the families of missing soldiers for their domestic and international anti-communist campaigns. A similar situation after the Vietnam War reminded Americans of the soldiers missing in Korea and established the norm that the military could only account for its missing personnel with their identified remains. The end of the Cold War created favorable conditions for recovering soldiers’ bodies from Korea, and the DPRK grasped this chance to seek maximum political and financial concessions from the United States. This study furthers our understanding of the Korean War’s legacy for Americans, the security situation in Korea, and the contribution of forensic science to the nation’s war memories.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • History

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Jay D. Aronson

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