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North Korea returns remains of 55 US service members

There’s a chance the cases don’t contain US remains, but those of other countries’ troops.

Soldiers carry caskets containing remains of US troops who were killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on July 27, 2018.
Soldiers carry caskets containing remains of US troops who were killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on July 27, 2018.
Kim Hong-ji/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea returned the purported remains of 55 American troops who served in the Korean War — exactly 65 years since the conflict’s de facto end.

According to United Nations Command, one of the military organizations charged with keeping peace on the peninsula, a C-17 plane picked up the cases of the remains in Wonson, North Korea, and flew them to Osan Air Base in South Korea.

An honor guard met the cases when they landed, and each was wrapped in the UN’s flag, the flag under which US troops fought during the war. The boxes were individually placed in six vans.

“It was a successful mission following extensive coordination,” Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, who leads US and UN troops in South Korea, said in a statement. “Now, we will prepare to honor our fallen before they continue on their journey home.”

The US military still has to run an extensive DNA verification process on the remains to ensure they correspond with missing Americans. The cases will fly to Hawaii to undergo processing by the Pentagon agency charged with accounting for prisoners of war and troops missing in action.

There could be complications: US officials continually warn that remains from one US service member could be mixed with another. There’s also a risk that the remains belong to non-US troops. It’s unclear when the forensic work will end.

Still, this is a big deal. Around 36,500 US service members died during the Korean War, but America has yet to account for around 7,700 of them, with around 5,300 lost in North Korea. They include, as CNN reported in June, shot-down pilots, prisoners of war, or ground troops. The returned 55 sets of remains may not do much to bring down the total number, but it will serve as a relief to the families of the fallen soldiers.

It was also a symbolic day to do it: 65 years ago, the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. That means the war technically continues and partially explains why all the remains have yet to be returned.

It’s also the first time since 2007 that North Korea has returned military remains to the US. 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.

The return is part of broader US-North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Pyongyang’s gesture was widely expected and fulfills one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s promises to US President Donald Trump at their Singapore summit last month.

The fourth point of the US-North Korea agreement signed in June 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.

Some experts, however, don’t buy it. “That the regime could return 55 remains so quickly confirms that it has been holding them to serve as negotiating bargaining chips. Some reports suggest North Korea has held hundreds of remains for decades,” says Bruce Klingner, a former top CIA official in the Koreas and now an expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “North Korea has not, however, taken any steps to begin denuclearization as it promised to do.”

That will likely mean little to the relatives of the fallen now, who may finally, hopefully, find peace.

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” Trump tweeted on Thursday night.

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