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North Korea may soon return the remains of fallen US troops

Around 200 sets of remains could return to the US as soon as this week.

US troops conduct the graveside services for Korean War solider US Army Sgt. Wilson Meckley, Jr., at Arlington National Cemetery on April 4, 2016. Meckley was declared missing, then dead, after his unit was overwhelmed by Chinese forces in the late autumn
US troops conduct the graveside services for Korean War solider US Army Sgt. Wilson Meckley Jr., at Arlington National Cemetery on April 4, 2016. Meckley was declared missing, then dead, after his unit was overwhelmed by Chinese forces in late autumn 1950 but his body was never found.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

North Korea may return the remains of hundreds of US service members who fought in the Korean War — and it could happen as soon as this week.

According to CNN’s Barbara Starr, Pyongyang is planning to send the remains of around 200 US troops who died during the war from 1950 to 1953 back to the US after first handing them over to the United Nations. However, the US military would have to run an extensive DNA verification process on the remains to ensure they correspond with missing Americans.

This is a big deal. The US has yet to account for around 7,700 US troops from the war, with around 5,300 of them lost in North Korea. They include, as CNN notes, shot-down pilots, prisoners of war, or ground troops. Sending 200 sets of remains may not do much to bring the total number down, but it will serve as a relief to the families of the fallen soldiers.

If North Korea follows through, it will be the first time since 2007 that the country returns American military remains. Former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, who secured six sets of remains from North Korea in 2007, told me in May that this is a huge issue for families who don’t know what happened to their lost family members.

But there’s also a broader message here. The fourth point of the US-North Korea agreement after last week’s summit specifically mentioned the return of American remains. “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” read the joint statement, using acronyms for the official name of North Korea and prisoners of war.

That agreement was meant to set the guidelines for the eventual end of North Korea’s nuclear program. If Pyongyang starts returning the remains of US troops held for decades in North Korea, it’s possible that the country is serious about curbing its nuclear capabilities.

President Donald Trump, though, declared last week that North Korea would follow through on its promise. “The remains will be coming back,” Trump said. “They will start that process immediately.”

That, at least for now, seems possible.