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Remains of U.S. War Dead in North Korea Start Journey Home After 65 Years

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A soldier at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. Remains believed to be those of American servicemen were flown out of North Korea on Friday. The remains flown out on Friday were the first handed over since a joint effort by American military experts and North Korean workers between 1996 and 2005.CreditAhn Young-joon/Associated Press

By Choe Sang-Hun

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — Remains believed to be those of about 50 American servicemen were flown out of North Korea on Friday, the first visible result of President Trump’s efforts to bring the American war dead home 65 years after the end of the Korean War.

“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in announcing the handover.

An American Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane carrying the remains landed later at Osan Air Base south of Seoul, the South Korean capital. Hundreds of American service members as well as a military honor guard lined up on the tarmac to mark the return of the fallen soldiers.

From Osan Air Base, the remains will be transferred to the Hawaii-based Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, where painstaking forensic work will be carried out to identify them. Remains that were returned in the past from North Korea were found to be mixed with those of unidentified individuals and even with animal bones.

The Korean War was halted with an armistice signed 65 years ago on Friday. But thousands of American troops killed in major battles in North Korea have not been returned because the war was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, and North Korea and the United States lack diplomatic ties.

The remains flown out on Friday were the first handed over since a joint effort by American military experts and North Korean workers between 1996 and 2005. The group collected the remains of what were believed to have been 220 American soldiers.

But since then the Pentagon’s efforts to bring the American war dead home have been overshadowed by tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

A breakthrough came when Mr. Trump held a summit meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore on June 12. Mr. Kim committed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and promised to return the remains of American troops, starting with those already recovered and identified.

Mr. Trump claimed last month that the North Koreans had “already sent back, or are in the process of sending back, the remains of our great heroes.” He also boasted that North Korea’s nuclear crisis had been “largely solved.” But the efforts to denuclearize North Korea and return the American remains have moved slower than Washington had hoped.

Secretary of States Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, this month to urge North Korea to go forward with Mr. Kim’s commitments. North Korea soon accused the United States of making a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” while failing to offer corresponding American incentives to improve ties.

North Korea and the United States have yet to agree on a detailed road map on how to achieve what Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump both identified as their common goal: the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and the creation of a new bilateral relationship.

Still, during recent talks with American officials on the border between North and South Korea, the North reaffirmed its commitment to return some remains. Its officials also agreed to resume joint United States-North Korean searches at major battle sites in the North to recover more remains.

More than 36,000 American troops died in the Korean War. Of them, some 7,700 remain unaccounted for, including 5,300 believed to have died in the North.

Washington considers the return of the remains an important good-will gesture as it considers improving ties with North Korea should it denuclearize. North Korea has recently started dismantling a missile-engine test site, as Mr. Trump said Mr. Kim promised he would during their summit meeting.

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