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Return of possible remains of US soldiers by North Korea boosts diplomacy

Close to 7,700 US soldiers remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.

Donald Trump has thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for “fulfilling a promise” to return the remains of US soldiers missing from the Korean War.

The US president’s remarks came as a US military plane made a rare trip into North Korea to retrieve 55 cases said to contain remains.

Close to 7,700 US soldiers remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.

North Korea’s move signals a positive step in Mr Trump’s diplomacy with Pyongyang, and may restart efforts to send US teams into the country to search for additional war dead.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned that the transfer of remains “is separate” from what have so far been troubled efforts to negotiate the complete denuclearisation of North Korea.

However, he said it was a step in the right direction following the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

“This is obviously a gesture of carrying forward what they agreed to in Singapore and we take it as such,” Mr Mattis told reporters.

“We also look at it as a first step of a restarted process. So we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home.”

Despite soaring rhetoric about denuclearisation before the Singapore meeting, the summit ended with only a vague aspirational goal for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when and how that would occur.

Subsequent talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials got off to a rocky start earlier this month, with the North accusing the Americans of making “unilateral and gangster-like” demands on denuclearisation.

United Nations Honour Guard members carry boxes believed to contain the remains of US servicemen killed during the Korean War during a return ceremony at Osan Air Base, in Pyeontaek, South Korea (Staff Sgt Quince Lanford/US Army via AP)

On Wednesday, Mr Pompeo said a great deal of work remains ahead of a North Korea denuclearisation deal, but he declined to provide any timeline.

Mr Trump, addressing reporters on the South Lawn, said Vice President Mike Pence would greet the families and the remains of the soldiers.

“We have many others coming, but I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me, and I’m sure that he will continue to fulfil that promise as they search and search and search,” he said.

“These incredible American heroes will soon lay at rest on sacred American soil.”

Mr Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, said in a statement that he will participate in the ceremony when the remains arrive in the US.

United Nations Command said the remains will be flown to Hawaii immediately after a full honours ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday.

“It is deeply humbling to be part of this historic moment,” Mr Pence said.

“We will never forget the sacrifices these brave service members and their families made for our nation and our freedoms.”

Early on Friday morning in Korea, a US Air Force C-17 transport plane made a rare trip into North Korea to retrieve 55 cases of what are believed to be remains from the Korean War.

The aircraft then flew from Wonsan to Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, near the South Korean capital of Seoul.

At the air base, US servicemen and a military honour guard lined up on the tarmac to receive the remains, which were carried in boxes covered in blue UN flags.

Officials in North Korea had no comment on the handover, which came on the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

Once the cases arrive in Hawaii, a series of forensic examinations will be done to determine if the remains are human and if the dead were American or allied troops killed in the conflict.

Mr Mattis underscored that looming question, saying “we don’t know who’s in those boxes”.

However, he said the gesture is important for families of the fallen, which could include any of the allies that also fought in the war.

“We have families that when they got the telegram, have never had closure,” Mr Mattis said.

“They’ve never gone out and had the body returned.”

More than 36,000 US troops died in the conflict, including those listed as missing in action.

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