U.S. and North Korean military officials held “productive” talks Sunday on efforts to return of the remains of American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 war.
The negotiations, which were the first general officer-level talks since 2009, occurred three days after the North was a no-show for a previously scheduled round after keeping the delegation on the other side waiting for hours.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to try to recover remains, “including the immediate repatriation of those already identified,” during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Search efforts in the North have been stalled for more than a decade amid rising tensions over the communist state’s nuclear weapons program.
“Today’s talks were productive and cooperative and resulted in firm commitments,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday in a statement.
Working-level meetings on the next steps, “including the transfer of remains already collected,” will begin Monday, he added.
The two sides also agreed to restart field operations to search for remains in the North, he said.
The U.S. delegation was led by Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Minihan, the chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea, officials said.
The North Korean side was led by a two-star general, according to the Yonhap News Agency, citing sources.
More than 7,700 U.S. troops are still missing in action from the brutal, three-year war, with an estimated 5,300 believed to have been lost in the North, according to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The agency says that North Korean officials have indicated they have “as many as 200 sets of remains” already recovered that could be ready for return.
There’s no way to be sure they belong to Americans until they’re returned. The identification of remains requires a complicated forensics process that often takes years.
Joint U.S.-North Korean military search teams recovered 229 sets of American remains from North Korea between 1996 and 2005.
The U.S. 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.
Kim’s promise to return more remains was one of the promises made in the final declaration following his meeting with Trump. The two leaders also agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula and to improve bilateral relations.
The American officials met with the North Koreans Sunday in the Joint Security Area in the tense, heavily fortified border that has divided the peninsula since the war ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The U.S. military in South Korea has been on standby for weeks and sent wooden coffins and flags to Panmunjom in preparation for the return.
Pompeo had announced the talks would be held on July 12 following his most recent trip to North Korea, although he added “it could move by one day or two.”
The State Department later said the North Koreans had contacted them on Thursday and offered to meet on Sunday instead.
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