WASHINGTON — The remains of multiple of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War more than six decades ago are headed back to America now after North Korean officials turned them over to military officials, White House officials announced Thursday night.
The move comes on the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities in the conflict and about six weeks after President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a statement, White House officials praised their North Korean counterparts for honoring a promise from that meeting to return the remains. “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”
Military officials said the remains were loaded onto an Air Force C-17 at an air base in Wonsan, North Korea, and taken to Osan Air Base in South Korea. Service members from United Nations Command Korea and technical experts from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency were on hand for the event.
United Nations Command officials confirmed that 55 cases of remains were turned over by the North Koreans. A formal repatriation ceremony will be held on Aug. 1, with plans to return the remains to Hawaii after that for further analysis.
“The United States owes a profound debt of gratitude to those American service members who gave their lives in service to their country and we are working diligently to bring them home,” the White House statement said.
“It is a solemn obligation of the United States Government to ensure that the remains are handled with dignity and properly accounted for so their families receive them in an honorable manner.”
More than 35,000 Americans died on the Korean Peninsula during that war. Of those, 7,700 are still listed as missing in action, with 5,300 believed to be on North Korean soil.
U.S. and North Korean officials had previously worked together on the recovery of those casualties in the past, forging a repatriation agreement that lasted from 1990 to 2005. During that span, 229 fallen troops were identified and returned home.
But 13 years ago, in the face of deteriorating political relations, the effort was suspended. Earlier this week, officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency credited lobbying work by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for helping to highlight the issue and push its inclusion into the North Korean summit conversation.
Identifying the remains is a process that typically takes months or years. Defense officials have said they believe North Korea the remains of 200 missing service members in their possession, and in recent weeks have begun preparing for the identification work ahead.