North Korea on Friday handed over the remains of some U.S. soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War, giving new momentum to a diplomatic detente that had shown signs of stalling in recent weeks.
Exactly 65 years after the signing of an armistice that ended hostilities in the conflict, a U.S. military plane flew the remains to Osan Air Base in South Korea after collecting them from North Korean officials in the port city of Wonsan.
“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in a statement. “Today’s actions represent a significant first step to recommence the repatriation of remains from North Korea and to resume field operations in North Korea to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who have not yet returned home.”
A formal repatriation ceremony would be held at Osan Air Base on Wednesday, the statement said.
President Trump welcomed the news in a tweet. “After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” he said.
The return of the remains follows through on one aspect of the joint statement signed by Messrs. Trump and Kim in Singapore last month, in which North Korea agreed to the “immediate repatriation” of the remains of U.S. soldiers already identified.
It also comes as Pyongyang pushes for a formal declaration to end the Korean War, which left the peninsula divided.
On Friday, 55 wooden boxes containing the soldiers’ remains, draped in sky-blue United Nations flags, were unloaded from a C-17 aircraft after it touched down in South Korea.
About 60 South Korean, U.S., Thai and Filipino military personnel from the U.N. Command formed honor guards at Osan Air Base to mark the repatriation. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel and their families also lined up to pay their respects.
“It’s time to bring them home,” said retired Air Force veteran Ernest Lee of Cherry Hill, N.J., who was at Osan for the occasion.
The next step will be for the U.S. to conduct DNA tests to match the remains with the identities of U.S. soldiers killed in the conflict.
In 2011, North Korea returned the remains of a dead animal to the U.K. during a similar diplomatic detente, according to a memoir published earlier this year by Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador to London before he defected to South Korea in 2016.
Meanwhile, at a cemetery east of Pyongyang, Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, used the armistice anniversary to strengthen his ties with China, which sent a delegation to the North Korean capital on Wednesday for high-level talks. The Chinese sent troops to defend North Korea in 1950, and lost tens of thousands of men, including the son of former leader Mao Zedong.
To mark the anniversary, Mr. Kim laid wreaths at a “martyrs tower” and at the grave of Mao Anying, North Korea’s state media said Friday.
The process of repatriating the U.S. soldiers’ remains from North Korea has taken longer than many had expected, and questions remain over how many Pyongyang still holds.
Still, the development raises hopes of a sustained improvement in relations between Pyongyang and Washington. Recent satellite imagery showed that North Korea was moving to dismantle its satellite launch site at Sohae, on its northwest coast, apparently fulfilling a pledge that Mr. Kim made to Mr. Trump during their meeting in Singapore.
Suspicions linger, though, about North Korea’s willingness to make concessions on core security issues, including denuclearization—a priority of the Trump administration.
While the North dismantled its underground nuclear test site in its northeast in April, and has begun to take down its satellite launch facility, satellite imagery has shown the regime expanding facilities involved in producing fissile material and making components for advanced solid-fuel missiles.
Appeared in the July 27, 2018, print edition as ‘Pyongyang Returns Americans’ Remains.’