With a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps, the U.S.-led United Nations Command and South Korea on Friday repatriated the remains of two soldiers found decades after they were killed in the Korean War.
It was a somber reminder of the importance both countries place on the return of lost troops amid hopes that North Korea will follow through on a commitment to return more war dead.
The North skipped a meeting planned Thursday in the Demilitarized Zone to discuss the issue, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said they had offered to meet Sunday instead.
The remains of the U.N. soldier honored Friday were found by South Korean search teams in 2016 in the Cheorwon area of Gangwon province, near the eastern border with the North. The soldier was not identified.
The South Korean soldier’s remains were found by the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in 2001 in Kaechon, North Korea. He was identified as Pvt. Yoon Kyung Hyeok, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division as a Korean Augmentation to the United States.
Yoon’s family followed the casket, which was draped with a South Korean flag, as it was carried to a waiting hearse. The other casket was draped with a blue U.N. flag.
“We are gathered here to fulfill our solemn obligation to never forget those who have fallen in battle and those who have been listed as missing in action or prisoner of war,” UNC commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said during the ceremony.
“The greater responsibility is to account for every one of them and return them to their families, bringing to an end the years of uncertainty and anguish,” said Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
The search for fallen soldiers in North Korea has been halted for more than a decade amid tensions with the communist state. Many remains recovered have yet to be identified due to the complicated and lengthy process involved.
South Korea, which has more than 120,000 troops missing in action, began its search efforts in 2000 with the formation of the Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification.
Leader Kim Jong Un agreed to try to return more remains, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump.
But no moves have been made on that front. American officials have been on standby for weeks and have sent wooden coffins and flags to Panmunjom in preparation for a handover.
More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the three-year war, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders.
That number includes 7,702 who are missing in action, with an estimated 5,300 believed to have been lost in the North, according to DPAA, which is based in Hawaii and oversees the effort.
The agency says that North Korean officials have indicated they have “as many as 200 sets of remains” recovered that could be ready for return. Identities would not be confirmed until after what is often a lengthy and complicated forensics process.
Joint U.S.-North Korean military search teams recovered 229 sets of American remains from North Korea between 1996 and 2005.
The United States was allowed to conduct 33 investigative and recovery operations in the country before former President George W. Bush’s administration called off the search, claiming the safety of American participants was not guaranteed.
Critics at the time also argued the North was using the program to extort money from Washington, prompting the label “bones for bucks.”
The last repatriation was in 2007 when then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Pyongyang and returned with six sets of remains.
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