WASHINGTON, U.S. - The pledge to transfer the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War was seen as a goodwill gesture made by the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the June summit he held with the U.S. President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, in what was touted by the U.S. as a sign of improvement in ties with North Korea, 55 cases of what are believed to be the remains of Americans who were killed or captured during the Korean War were transported to a military base in Hawaii.
The cases were then handed over to U.S. officials who had traveled to North Korea last week and were subsequently examined by American experts, who confirmed that the remains received were likely to be American, and likely Korean War combatants.
After participating in the Honorable Carry Ceremony on Wednesday, where the remains were officially delivered to the U.S. in Hawaii, the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hailed the move as a positive sign that North Korea would live up to the other commitments it made.
At the ceremony, Pence said that more than 8,000 Americans had gone missing or were killed during the war.
He further mentioned that along with the denuclearization commitment Trump had obtained from Kim Jong Un during their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, Trump had also "secured a promise from Chairman Kim to return the remains of all fallen U.S. service members lost in North Korea."
Pence declared, “We see today as tangible progress to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula.”
Further, the authenticity of the remains has been hailed as a gesture of good faith on the part of the North Korean leader.
Rear Admiral Jon Kreitz, the deputy director of the agency in charge of identifying the remains, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) said at the ceremony, "This is a great first step in terms of bringing a bunch of fallen Americans home. We look forward to potentially pursuing (remains recovery) operations in North Korea in the future and we're very hopeful. Again, this is just a great first step in building some confidence and building a relationship."
In a statement, the White House said it was the latest sign of thawing relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
The statement noted, "Today, (Kim) is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the President to return our fallen American service members. We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change."
The White House statement said, "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.”
On Thursday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his thanks to the North Korean leader and wrote, "Thank you to Chairman Kim Jong Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and beloved missing fallen! I am not at all surprised that you took this kind action. Also, thank you for your nice letter - l look forward to seeing you soon!"
Confirming the communication between the two leaders, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump had received the letter from Kim Jong Un, adding, “A letter to President Trump from Chairman Kim was received on August 1. The ongoing correspondence between the two leaders is aimed at following up on their meeting in Singapore and advancing the commitments made in the US-DPRK joint statement."
The South Korean President Moon Jae In too has expressed hope that the return of the remains could boost the momentum for the nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
In June, Kim Jong Un returned the remains of 200 U.S. or allied service members lost in the Korean War.
According to U.S. military data, more than 36,500 U.S. troops were killed on the Korean peninsula during the 1950-1953 war, with 7,700 of these US troops still listed as missing in action - most of them in North Korea.
The remains of 5,300 other missing servicemen are thought to be scattered around the North Korean territory.
According to experts, since the war ended, recovery and repatriation efforts have been ongoing, on and off, for decades.
The United Nations Command data shows that around 629 sets of remains have returned home so far since 1990.
Between 1990 and 1994, North Korea unilaterally handed over 208 caskets to the U.S., which turned out to contain remains of far more than 208 individuals, although forensics specialists thus far have established 181 identities.
Between 1996 and 2005, a series of U.S.-North Korean recovery efforts, termed "joint field activities," yielded 229 caskets of remains, of which 153 have been identified.
This week’s transfer of the remains from North Korea coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended fighting, and since a peace treaty wasn’t signed, the two Koreas are technically still at war.
Pence said at the ceremony in Hawaii, "Some have called the Korean War the forgotten war. But today, we prove these heroes were never forgotten. Today our boys are coming home.”
He added emotionally, "My dad, lieutenant Ed Pence fought in combat in the Korean War. He came back with a medal on his chest. But my dad, gone now 30 years, always told us the real heroes...were the ones that didn't get to come home.”
The transfer of the remains this week coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, but is yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war.