A UN honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from US servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on July 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ahn Young-joon

On the morning of the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought the Korean War to an uneasy halt, US troops in South Korea received the remains of American soldiers from North Korea who were killed during that conflict.

TV footage showed US service personnel, in formal dress uniforms, carrying a series of boxes draped in UN flags – the banner under which US-led, free-world troops fought the 1950-53 war – from the rear of a transport aircraft to waiting vehicles. The route between the rear ramp of the aircraft and the vehicles was lined by more troops standing at attention.

According to White House sources quoted by press agencies, the US aircraft carrying the remains had departed from Wonsan, in eastern North Korea, earlier in the day. Osan Air Base is part of the sprawling series of facilities in and around the town of Pyeongtaek, the emerging new air-land-sea hub for the 28,500 active service US troops stationed in South Korea.

It is not yet known exactly what is contained in the boxes, but US Forces Korea said, in a press release, that there were 55 boxes of remains. The remains are expected to be flown to specialist labs in Hawaii for DNA analysis.

According to the US government’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, as of June 2018, there were still 7,699 missing in action (MIA) from the Korean War. Of those, some 5,300 are believed to be in the North, where ferocious fighting raged in the fall and winter of 1950.

Between 1990 and 2005, joint North Korean-US teams recovered 229 sets of remains from North Korea, but those operations were suspended by the George W. Bush administration amid bilateral tensions.

“Today’s actions represent a significant first step to recommence the repatriation of remains from North Korea and to resume field operations in North Korea, to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who have not yet returned home,” the White House said in a statement.

After 65 years, no peace treaty in sight

Friday’s handover was the fruit of a promise North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made to US President Donald Trump when the two met in Singapore in June. It follows news that broke earlier this week that North Korea was dismantling a satellite launch site, which has been used to test the engines of long-range missiles.

There has reportedly been frustration in Washington, given that a mutually agreed upon denuclearization process, which was expected to have been kick-started by the June summit, has not yet begun. In this atmosphere, the conciliatory, albeit unilateral, moves by the North may regenerate some goodwill after the last meeting between senior officials ended with Pyongyang media accusing Washington of “gangster-like” tactics.

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

A formal repatriation ceremony for the remains will be held at Osan Air Base on August 1.

The Korean conflict cost America 36,574 dead. Due to the scarcity of data from North Korea, there is no agreed-upon figure for the total number of killed in a war ignited when Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950.

However, most estimates put the number in the millions.

With no peace treaty ever having replaced the 1953 armistice, South Korea and the United States remain formally at war with North Korea. But amid the air of détente that has been spreading across the peninsula and the region since Kim’s conciliatory January 1 speech, and in the wake of the flurry of international summits that followed, there has been speculation in South Korea and elsewhere that Friday’s anniversary might be marked by a peace treaty or related announcement.

But despite the return of the war remains on this symbolically charged date, that speculation now looks to be off-base.

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