Medal of Honor recipient urges U.S. to re-engage with North Korea

North Korea's message of peace
North Korea's message of peace

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Story highlights

  • Captain Thomas Hudner hopes to find the remains of a friend shot down in Korean War
  • Leader Kim Jong Un is apparently moved by his story and ordered his military to help
  • U.S. governments have frozen search for bodies due to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions
  • Hudner has written to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to resume recovery work

Captain Thomas Hudner traveled to North Korea with hopes of finding the remains of an old friend shot down more 60 years ago during the Korean War. Instead, he returned home with an offer of talks for the U.S. government.

Leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been personally moved by Hudner's story and has ordered his military to do all they can to help find his comrade's remains. A surprising level of co-operation coming just months after Kim's regime made threats of a nuclear war with the United States.

North Korea: A sneak peek through the keyhole

December 4, 1950, Hudner was wingman to the U.S. Navy's first African-American pilot, Jesse Brown. Brown was shot down deep within enemy territory and was trapped in his cockpit. Hudner risked his life -- deliberately crash landing his own plane -- to try to rescue him. Brown died on the side of a mountain in the brutal Korean winter but Hudner made him a promise he'd be back for him.

Hudner did return to Korea but bad weather prevented him reaching the crash site. Despite his disappointment, Hudner says his 10 day visit has made him aspire to more. "Our mission is just a part of a grand overall mission of preventing nuclear war and other types of war that could set us back to where we were 63 years ago."

Hudner has sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry relaying North Korea's wish to resume the joint recovery work of U.S. remains that stalled in 2005. Around 8,000 Americans are still MIA in the country but consecutive U.S. governments have frozen the search for bodies due to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

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North Korea's Kim Jong Un honors country's war veterans

In his letter, Hudner said the officials of the Korean People's Army told him "they wish for this humanitarian mission to continue regardless of the larger political issues. These men are soldiers and professionals whom I have looked in the eyes and come to trust."

Hudner and fellow Korean War veterans were surprised by the level of respect and hospitality they received from officers of the Korean People's Army who were escorting them throughout their trip.

"Sometimes you get with groups of veterans of other nations," says Hudner, "and there's a guardedness that they have. They don't want to say too much, they don't want to get too close to you but these... they're very friendly. It's almost as if we're old allies getting together."

Hudner acknowledges his hopes of this trip contributing to better relations may be naive but is considering the invitation to return to North Korea in September. An advance team sent to the Chosin or Jangjin Reservoir by the KPA was stranded by the floods last week, but the KPA believes roads and helicopter landing pads can be repaired in a couple of months.

The KPA does insist though it wants a representative of the U.S. Joint P.O.W/M.I.A. Accounting Command (JPAC) to accompany any future expedition to search for Jesse Brown's remains. This would require a decision by the Obama administration to actively re-engage with North Korea.

State news: North Korea proposes high-level talks with U.S.