But in June 2010, shortly after North Korea torpedoed and sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the handover of wartime operational control until December 2015. Now, U.S. officials say Seoul officials are again raising the prospect of another delay, although no formal request has been made.
Also on hold are U.S. hopes to send forensic science teams back to North Korea to find U.S. MIA remains. Although the North began to allow U.S. excavations in 1996, Washington stopped in 2005 amid rising nuclear tensions.
The mystery of what happened to MIAs in North Korea runs deep, as do the emotions of MIA family members who have petitioned the government, searched military records and in some cases pleaded with diplomats to find answers.
"It's that unanswered question that lingers year after year," says Richard C. Thompson of Chestertown, Md., a distant cousin of Gilbert L. Ashley, Jr., an Air Force lieutenant who was one of five members of a B-29 bomber crew who became prisoners of war after surviving their shootdown over North Korea in January 1953.
Thompson and other relatives of Ashley and the other four airmen learned in the 1990s that they had been alive in the hands of North Korean captors after the July 1953 armistice was signed, but the men were never heard from again.
"It's a lingering melancholy," Thompson says.
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