International desk, July 27: North Korea has returned remains believed to be of 55 US troops killed during the Korean War, bringing renewed hope to families who have waited decades for closure.The return of the remains, brought to a US base in South Korea, is the latest move in the cautious diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang.
The repatriation was agreed at the June summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
It is hoped more will follow.
“It’s hard to live your life not knowing what happened to your loved one,” the daughter of one missing serviceman told the BBC ahead of Friday’s news.
The Singapore summit, where Mr Trump and Mr Kim agreed to work towards the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”, has been criticised for a lack of detail on when or how Pyongyang would renounce nuclear weapons.
But the return of US remains was one of four points actually listed in that June declaration, and comes on the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War.
It is believed that 55 soldiers have been returned this time, but their remains will need to be forensically tested to ensure they are indeed slain US troops – and it’s possible the identification process could take years.
John Zimmerlee, the son of a US serviceman who is among the missing, told the BBC there was no guarantee these were the remains of American soldiers.
Mr Zimmerlee, the founder of the Korean War Prisoners Of War and Missing In Action Network, said: “Keep in mind that these 55 remains that are coming back, these are people that they [North Korea] suspected were their enemy during the (Korean) war – not necessarily Americans.
“They could be British, they could be Australians, Belgians – could be a lot of different people.”
More than 326,000 Americans fought alongside soldiers from South Korea and a UN coalition during the war to support the South against the Communist North.
Thousands of US military personnel from the Korean war remain unaccounted for and most of them – about 5,300 – were lost in what is now North Korea.
The missing US soldiers are among around 33,000 coalition troops still unaccounted for.
The 12 June summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un saw both sides speak with ambition about concrete steps to improve relations but experts have cast doubt on whether Pyongyang is genuine in its apparent commitment to “denuclearise”.
Last week North Korea appeared to begin dismantling part of a key rocket launch site but there have been reports it secretly continues its weapons programme. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has accused the US of “gangster-like” tactics.
There’s also been little clarity about what exactly the two sides mean by “complete denuclearisation” and no details on a timeline for this to take place.
Nevertheless, Friday’s repatriation will likely be seen as a concrete goodwill gesture after years of efforts by relatives and US authorities to retrieve the remains.