U.S. prepares to retrieve remains

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U.S. prepares to retrieve remains

The U.S. military sent 100 wooden caskets to North Korea over the weekend to retrieve the remains of American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korean military officials said on Sunday.

A South Korean government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said preparations for the transfer of remains were in their final stages. Another South Korean military official said how many soldiers’ remains and when they would be transferred had not been decided yet, but the media will not be allowed to cover the handover.

The last time North Korea returned the remains of American soldiers was in April 2007. The transfer occurred at the border village of Panmunjom.

If the North does repatriate the remains, it will be the first tangible follow-up to the agreement signed between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their summit on June 12. At the time, both countries committed to recovering POW/MIA (prisoner of war/missing in action) remains, including the “immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

It is unclear whether the North will send the remains through Panmunjom or use another route.

South Korean military officials said they had hearses on standby but did not confirm whether they would actually be used. The U.S. Forces Korea said it sent 158 metal coffins to Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, about 40 miles south of Seoul, on Saturday to be used to transfer the remains from South Korea to the United States.

Authorities in Seoul have been tight-lipped on the details of the transfer, but The Wall Street Journal reported last Wednesday, citing an anonymous U.S. official, that Pyongyang has agreed to hand over the remains of more than 250 American service members.

Once the remains are brought to Osan Air Base, a tarmac ceremony will likely be held in the presence of U.S. Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks, after which they will be flown to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for identification.

One sticky issue that might arise between Pyongyang and Washington is the cost.

Radio Free Asia reported that North Korea has handed over the remains of 629 American soldiers since 1982, and that the United States paid a total of $22 million to Pyongyang for excavation procedures. But that’s before Trump carried out his maximum pressure campaign on the regime. The U.S. government allows the country to make payments to the North Korean regime on POW/MIA-related activities, but South Korean officials said the North will have to make some kind of verbal agreement this time vowing not to use the cash for its nuclear and missile development programs.

Last Friday, the White House announced that it would maintain its longstanding economic restrictions on North Korea for a year, saying that North Korea’s actions, policies and weapons-usable fissile material “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.

Restrictions that were initially placed in executive orders by President George W. Bush on June 26, 2008, and expanded broadly by Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, will stay in place.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG YONG-SOO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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