PYEONGTAEK, South Korea – The apparent remains of about 50 US servicemen were flown out of North Korea on Friday, the first visible result of President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring the US war dead home 65 years after the end of combat in the Korean War.
“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in announcing the handover.
A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane carrying the remains landed later at Osan Air Base south of Seoul, the South Korean capital. Hundreds of US service members, as well as a military honour guard, ined up on the tarmac to mark the return of the fallen soldiers.
From Osan Air Base, the remains will be transferred to the Hawaii-based Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, where painstaking forensic work will be carried out to identify them. Remains that were returned in the past from North Korea were found to have been mixed with those of unidentified people and even with animal bones.
The Korean War was halted with an armistice signed 65 years ago Friday. But thousands of U. troops killed in major battles in North Korea have not been returned because the war was never formally concluded with a peace treaty and because North Korea and the US lack diplomatic ties.
The remains flown out Friday were the first handed over since a joint effort by US military experts and North Korean workers between 1996 and 2005. The group collected the remains of what were believed to have been 220 US soldiers.
But since then the Pentagon’s efforts to bring the war dead home have been overshadowed by tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons programme.
A breakthrough came when Mr Trump held a summit meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore on June 12. Mr Kim committed to work toward the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and promised to return the remains of US troops, starting with those already recovered and identified.
Mr Trump claimed last month that the North Koreans had “already sent back, or are in the process of sending back, the remains of our great heroes”. He also boasted that North Korea’s nuclear crisis had been “largely solved”. But the efforts to denuclearise North Korea and return the US remains have moved slower than Washington had hoped.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, this month to urge North Korea to go forward with Mr Kim’s commitments. North Korea soon accused the United States of making a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearisation” while failing to offer corresponding US incentives to improve ties.
North Korea and the US have yet to agree on a detailed roadmap on how to achieve what Mr Kim and Mr Trump both identified as their common goal: the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and the creation of a new bilateral relationship.
Still, during recent talks with US officials on the border between North Korea and South Korea, the North reaffirmed its commitment to return some remains. Its officials also agreed to resume joint US-North Korean searches at major battle sites in the North to recover more remains.
More than 36,000 US troops died in the Korean War. Of them, some 7,700 remain unaccounted for, including 5,300 believed to have died in the North.
Washington considers the return of the remains an important gesture as it considers improving ties with North Korea should it denuclearise. North Korea has recently started dismantling a missile-engine test site, as Mr Trump said Mr Kim promised he would during their summit meeting.
By Choe Sang-Hun
The New York Times