North Korea Returns Some U.S. War Dead in Boost for Talks
(Bloomberg) -- North Korea released the remains of some U.S. war dead on the 65th anniversary of the armistice, the White House said, marking the first tangible outcome of President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un and signaling progress in broader nuclear talks.
A U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane flew to the eastern North Korean city of Wonsan early Friday and returned to Osan Air Base in South Korea with boxes containing what are believed to be the remains of missing American personnel. The aircraft arrived around 11 a.m. carrying 55 sets of remains, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said, representing about 1 percent of the service members still missing from the 1950-53 conflict.
“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families,” Trump said in a tweet. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un.”
The U.S. will formally accept the remains at an Aug. 1 ceremony at Osan, before being flown to Hawaii for verification. The Department of Defense had estimated before the trip that North Korea was holding about 200 sets of remains out of some 5,300 military personnel believed lost in the country.
At the air base Friday, white-gloved service members representing countries who fought on the allied side removed boxes carrying the remains one by one and loaded them into vans. Each box was draped in the flag of the United Nations, which formally led the fighting against North Korea and China.
The exchange on the historic anniversary follows Kim’s vow during his June 12 meeting with Trump to facilitate the “immediate repatriation” of identified remains. Discussions about returning the war dead have dragged on amid signs of disagreements about the pace, sequence and possible outcomes of Kim’s other pledge to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Recovering the war dead adds a boost of goodwill to overall talks and provides Trump a political victory similar to Kim’s May release of three living American detainees. The focus on soldiers remains, however, risks giving the North Koreans leverage to continue diplomacy and drag out disarmament talks.
“Today, the chairman is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the president to return our fallen American service members,” the White House said in an emailed statement. “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”
Negotiations appeared to stumble when North Korea denounced the U.S.’s “gangster-like” demands for unilateral disarmament after a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Trump said Thursday that talks were “making terrific progress,” citing Kim’s dismantlement of weapons-testing sites.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said earlier this week that he expected progress with denuclearization efforts to advance after the war dead issue was resolved.
Expectations for the soldiers’ return have been raised by Trump, who told reporters after the summit that Kim “was really very gracious” and immediately agreed to return the remains in response to his own spur-of-the-moment request. Trump continued to raise hopes in the subsequent days, telling Fox News that Kim was “giving us back the remains of probably 7,500 soldiers” and supporters in Nevada that North Korea had already handed over 200 sets of remains.
The recovery of war dead has long been among the most fraught issues between the U.S. and North Korea, dating back to even before the two sides formally stopped fighting. Joint efforts to find and identify U.S. personnel between 1990 and 2005 recovered more than 300 sets of remains and were suspended as nuclear talks between the two sides deteriorated. North Korea last repatriated the remains of six individuals in 2007.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.