A cruel deceptionRAF pilot remains discovered in North Korea is a story that once I had the full details of the aftermath several years later, quite frankly left me speechless and angry.

In early 2004, I was contacted at the embassy in Pyongyang by David Hinton, the brother of an RAF pilot who had been shot down in 1952 over North Korea during the Korean war. He said he had been working for several years trying to garner as much information from a variety of primary sources as to the fate of his brother.  He said he now had in his possession most of the details of the shoot down supplied by eyewitness United States Air Force (USAF) pilots and map coordinates of the site of the crash (which he later sent to me).

He then expressed a wish to be able to visit North Korea and hopefully, finally discover the fate of his brother. Could we help?

The background was that the pilot, Flt Lt Desmond Hinton, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II for shooting down two Japanese fighters had bailed out of his burning F84e Thunderjet whilst carrying out a strafing mission north east of Pyongyang on 2 January 1952. At the time, Flt Lt Hinton was one of a number of RAF pilots who were attached to and flying with the USAF. Despite enquiries after the war and with no further information as to his fate forthcoming, Flt Lt Hinton was subsequently officially listed as missing in action.

I knew that this was going to be a tall order to try and carry out. The Korean War itself was and still is a huge propaganda tool for the Kim dynasty. So requesting assistance in finding a hated enemy, albeit a fallen one, was perhaps a request too far.

But surprisingly, no.

Permission was granted for me to meet with the North Korean military and at the initial meeting, I provided them with all the research material sent to me by David Hinton and they said they would investigate.

The process of making this project happen, working with the North Korean military, I have covered in a previous post British Diplomat Works With North Korean Military

Against all expectations, the military did get back to me shortly afterwards with some quite startling news. Based on the information I had given them, they had identified the crash site which was close to a village called Kuso-ri/Gueso-ri situated near to what is currently the main airport for Pyongyang.

They had spoken with villagers including two elders who had witnessed the shoot down. Flt Lt Hinton had indeed ejected but his parachute failed and he was killed on impact. The villagers had then interred him in an unmarked grave in a field adjacent to the village. An exact location had been identified and human bones and fragments of uniform and aircraft had been uncovered. This scenario is somewhat similar to my previous post Tragic RAF Pilot’s Secret Grave Discovered In Albania

With this discovery, events moved quickly. A visa for David to enter North Korea was fast tracked and he duly arrived hopeful for some form of final closure. During his visit, he was treated as an honoured guest by the North Koreans and enjoyed the rare distinction of being accompanied throughout his visit by a senior Korean People’s Army officer, Colonel Kwak Chol-hui, who was at that time Director of Negotiations for Remains at the armistice site at Panmunjom.

So, on the day appointed to visit the village to view the grave, we arrived early and were met by the Colonel and both witnesses who then led us to the gravesite which was a short distance away.

The grave consisted simply of a mound of earth surrounded by a white picket fence, without any inscription. It lay close to a narrow footpath on a hillside 200 meters from the road.

David was introduced at the grave to the two witnesses to Desmond’s crash, a Mr Ri and Mr Han, local villagers who were only 13-years old at the time of the incident but who still appeared to have perfect recollections of the event. Perhaps a little too perfect and too detailed I thought at the time. But, maybe it was just me being a tad too cynical.

David then gave a short speech at the grave, thanking Colonel Kwak and the British embassy for making his visit possible, while the head of the village promised to tend the grave and paint the fence regularly.

We spent about 2 hours in the village and at the gravesite before it was time to leave. We said farewell to the Colonel and the witnesses and set off back to Pyongyang and David left North Korea the next day.

Upon his return to the UK, he was kind enough to send me copies of the many photographs he had taken that day and which I still have.

I learnt later that in 2011, a casket containing the bones of Flt Lt Hinton had been passed with great ceremony to the then British ambassador to North Korea for repatriation and presumably for burial at the UN Korean War cemetery in Busan, South Korea.

And here the story would have finally ended. But no!

The British Daily Mail ran a story on 17th June 2018 that was a shocker to me. It was revealed that subsequent DNA testing carried out on the bones after the repatriation identified them not as those of Flt Lieutenant Hinton but those of an animal!

According to the paper, family members were informed but the media was kept in the dark for fear of damaging relations between North Korea and the UK. Don’t you just love political machinations!

The paper then went on to quote the source as the memoirs of Mr Thae Yong-Ho, a North Korean diplomat who was Deputy North Korean Ambassador to the UK at the time and who defected to South Korea in 2016.

It also came as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had agreed with US President Donald Trump at their Singapore summit that all remains of US servicemen who died in the Korean War would now be returned.

Interestingly, the New York Times ran a story on 1st August 2018 detailing how difficult it had been to identify remains of American MIA’s handed over by the North Koreans to the US as a result of the Agreement with the paper also quoting the Hinton DNA story.

Mr Thae maintained that the Hinton episode was a case of crass incompetence. He also stated that Britain did protest but North Korean officials countered by saying they lacked the proper equipment to distinguish human from animal bones.

To this day, I cannot believe how stupid the North Koreans behaved in this matter. They must have known that DNA would be carried out on the bones.  If so, why did they release them?

A country that has a nuclear programme, the ability to launch missiles and a sophisticated scientific infrastructure coming out with such a lame excuse just didn’t hold water.

I might add that at the time of the Hinton project, Mr Thae was well known to the embassy in Pyongyang, both professionally and socially. He was an experienced diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where as part of his portfolio, he was in charge of the UK desk, hence the contacts. So, he would have been well aware (and probably involved behind the scenes) in what developed.

So what should have been a positive North Korean story about the discovery and dignified burial of a fallen RAF pilot and the assistance given to a close relative to enable him to pay his last respects, in the end turned out to be nothing but a cruel and wicked deception.

Sources:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5852503/Remains-RAF-hero-shot-North-Korea-2011-turns-animal-bones.html

“Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat” 2018 Thae Yong-Ho

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