North Korea leader Kim Jong-un inspects construction sites in Samjiyon County, North Korea. KCNA/via REUTERS
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un inspects construction sites in Samjiyon County, North Korea. KCNA/via REUTERS

North Korean officials did not show up for a planned meeting with US counterparts to discuss returning the remains of US war dead, South Korean media reported, in the latest sign of tension between the two sides.

South Korean officials later said the meeting would be rescheduled for July 15, but that was after US negotiators arrived on Thursday at the militarised border between the two Koreas and were kept waiting, the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing diplomatic officials it did not identify.

The meeting was expected to be the first working-level talks between the two sides since Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang ended on Saturday, with North Korea denouncing the US’s "unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation".

A spokesperson for US Forces Korea referred questions on Thursday to the department of defence in Washington. The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday. Pompeo had said when announcing the talks that the meeting could "move by one day or two".

While the details are unclear, a setback on talks over the remains would not bode well for broader negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear programme. The discussions about returning US soldiers killed almost 70 years ago was perhaps the most tangible outcome from Pompeo’s trip, which analysts expected would at least secure the release of some remains.

The department of defence estimates that North Korea is holding about 200 sets of remains from about 5,300 American military personnel believed missing in the country. Their recovery has long been among the most emotionally charged issues between the two sides. Caskets that the US shipped to the border in June have not been filled, despite Kim Jong-un’s pledge during his June 12 summit with Donald Trump to immediately repatriate identified remains.

While recovering the war dead would provide Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three US detainees, it would do little to advance the goal of dismantling the regime’s weapons programme. The US also risks giving the North Koreans leverage to continue diplomacy and drag out disarmament talks.

North Korea’s criticism of talks with Pompeo fuelled further doubts about whether Trump would ever achieve his goal of "complete denuclearisation", much less on the timeline of one to two-and-a-half years set out by various administration officials. Although Pompeo called the meetings "productive", North Korea said the lack of emphasis on security guarantees was "regretful".

The talks about the bodies from the war were expected to be led by military officials, not the diplomats who are handling nuclear negotiations. North Korea said on Saturday that it was seeking the "earliest start of the working-level talks" on the recovery of US remains.

Trump has expressed an eagerness to tout the recovery of the war dead, telling Fox News that Kim was "giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers". He also told supporters in Nevada that North Korea had already handed over 200 sets of remains. Pompeo was obliged to correct those claims, telling a US Senate committee on June 27 that no exchanges had been made.

With Tony Capaccio