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North Korea Returns Remains Of 55 U.S. Servicemen Killed In Korean War


During remarks at the White House this morning, President Trump said North Korea has handed over what are believed to be the remains of dozens of U.S. servicemen who died in the Korean War.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word. We have many others coming, but I want to thank Chairman Kim in front the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me.


That war ended with an armistice exactly 65 years ago today. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following this from Beijing. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Noel.

KING: So how did this repatriation work?

KUHN: What happened was a U.S. Air Force cargo plane flew from South Korea to North Korea early this morning local time, and they brought back 55 caskets. And that doesn't mean there are 55 people's sets of remains there. We - they have to be examined to find that out. But anyways, they came back draped in United Nations flags because that's under whose authority the U.S. fought in the Korean War.

And so next, there will be a formal repatriation ceremony in South Korea next week. And then, the remains will be flown back to Hawaii for forensic examination to see if they actually are the remains of U.S. troops. Now, this is the first sort of direct repatriation in quite a few years. And in the past, some of those remains in those caskets have reportedly contained animal bones or remains of people who were not U.S. troops, so they have to be checked.

KING: Oh, wow. This comes amid a lot of geopolitical maneuvering. And so it makes me wonder what the governments of the United States and North Korea and, indeed, South Korea are saying about this.

KUHN: Well, the White House put out a statement saying it's encouraged by this move and that North Korea has stuck to its word, its promise to return these remains. And President Trump personally tweeted his thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea's encouraged, too They're also trying to get back these POW, MIA remains back from North Korea. And you've also got families of American servicemen missing in North Korea who are trying to keep this process moving forward and get the U.S. and North Korea to dig up and repatriate more remains.

Some of these remains were actually dug up a decade or more ago and only repatriated now. And one of the criticisms of North Korea is that they're actually hanging on to some remains to try to extract the most concessions from the U.S., using them sort of like bargaining chips, or even worse, maybe even trying to sell the remains back to the U.S.

KING: So this clearly does factor into the diplomacy around denuclearization and the U.S. push to get North Korea to do that. What is next on that front?

KUHN: Well, the problem, Noel, is that the issue of denuclearization has sort of stuck. The U.S. and North Korea are deadlocked over, you know, what's going to come first. So that's why the hope is that these sort of confidence-building measures, these goodwill gestures will keep positive momentum going and buy time for the resolution of the nuclear issue. And we've got months ahead of intensive diplomacy. The leaders of the Koreas, the U.S. and China are probably all going to hold more summits, but only if the confidence is still there. If it collapses, then all bets are off, I think.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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