G.I. remains handed over today

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G.I. remains handed over today


A Boeing C-17 Globemaster III at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, south of Seoul, on Thursday. Three C-17s are said to be on standby for the repatriation mission, though how many will actually be deployed is unknown. [YONHAP]

A U.S. military transport plane will fly into North Korea to pick up the remains of some 50 American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, U.S. and North Korean authorities tentatively agreed earlier this week, multiple diplomatic sources in Seoul exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday.

The transfer will likely take place some time today, said the sources, though Seoul and Washington were aware last-minute changes could develop if Pyongyang decides otherwise. Today is the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, leaving both Koreas technically at war.

One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the North planned to send the remains to Wonsan in Kangwon Province, just north of the inter-Korean border facing the East Sea, where a U.S. transport plane will be parked at Kalma Airport.

A Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is expected to be deployed for the mission. A local government official said Thursday three C-17 aircraft were on standby at South Korea’s Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, south of Seoul, including one that arrived that afternoon.

From Wonsan, the C-17 is expected to load the remains and bring them to Osan Air Base, where they will be sorted out and cleaned. The remains will be put in metal caskets and sent to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where a forensic identification lab is located, to try to find matches of them.

An American official who spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo was cautious about how many sets of remains the North promised to repatriate, saying they’d have to see once the transfer actually takes place.

Wooden caskets that the U.S. Forces Korea and United Nations Command sent to the Joint Security Area on June 12 for the remains were recently transferred to the North, though exactly how many crossed the border or when they crossed were unclear. A hundred wooden caskets were waiting at the truce village of Panmunjom to be handed over to the regime. Another 158 metal caskets are at Osan Air Base.

If Pyongyang repatriates the remains of American soldiers, it would be the second tangible follow-up to the landmark summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month, after recent satellite images showed the regime dismantling key parts of a missile engine testing site Trump said Kim promised to tear down.

In the joint statement signed by both leaders on June 12 in Singapore, the United States and North Korea agreed to commit to recover remains of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

In a meeting between American and North Korean generals last Sunday in Panmunjom, both countries agreed to restart field operations to search for the remains of an estimated 5,300 American soldiers missing in the Korean War and hold working-level meetings to coordinate the next steps, including the transfer of remains already collected.

The generals’ meeting came after the initial lower-level talks scheduled for July 19 didn’t take place because North Korean officials didn’t show up, leaving the American delegation waiting for four hours.

According to statistics from the U.S. Defense Department, around 7,700 U.S. service members are unaccounted for from the Korean War and some 5,300 are believed to be in North Korea. From 1990 to 1994, North Korea returned 208 caskets of remains, many of which were commingled; 181 people were identified.

From 1996 to 2005, the North allowed U.S. military personnel to conduct joint filed searches for more remains, which resulted in 229 caskets being sent to the United States; 153 people were identified.

North Korea last returned the remains of what was believed to be six people in 2007.

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