What are thought to be the remains of 55 American servicemen killed during the Korean War were released by North Korea on Friday and flown to a U.S. air base, the White House said.
The move comes on the 65th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended combat and represents a significant victory for President Donald Trump, who had promised to bring home the remains amid thawing tensions with Pyongyang.
“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,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”
Trump addressed the event on Twitter, saying it would be a “great moment for so many families.”
The release took place about 6 a.m. Friday after a U.S. Air Force jet left the North Korean city of Wonsan. The aircraft arrived at Osan Air Base near Seoul, where it was met by hundreds of American servicemen and a military honor guard. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor noted soldiers appeared to be lined up for a quarter mile, waiting in 90-degree heat to see the caskets along.
The remains are expected to stay at the air base for several days until a repatriation ceremony on Aug. 1. They’ll then be flown to Hawaii.
The New York Times notes that forensic analysts with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will spend months, or even years, trying to identify them, noting that in the past individual sets of returned remains have been found to contain bones from several bodies.
“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,” Sanders 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.”
Rick Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, said on Facebook that the group was pleased by the news and said he hoped it was a signal that more American soldiers could be brought home beginning next year.
The return is the first time since 2005 that North Korea has handed over the remains of American service members. The country, working jointly with the U.S. military, returned 220 sets of remains up until that year before tensions over the Kim dynasty’s nuclear program overshadowed the effort.
Trump had promised to secure the release of more remains after his summit with Kim in Singapore last month. The process has taken more time than expected, however.
About 7,700 Americans remain unaccounted for after the Korean War, the Pentagon says, including 5,300 thought to have been killed in the North.