The remains of American service members from the Korean War were transferred out of North Korea on Friday, according to a White House statement, fulfilling a key agreement President Trump and Chairman Kim reached during last month's summit in Singapore.
A U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft containing remains has departed Wonsan, North Korea, accompanied by service members from the United Nations Command Korea, as well as experts from the Department of Defense's POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the statement read.
The unknown number of remains will be transferred to Osan Air Base in South Korea where a formal repatriation ceremony will be held on August 1. From there, they are expected to be taken to the DPAA laboratory in Hawaii where they will be identified.
"The United States owes a profound debt of gratitude to those American service members who gave their lives in service to their country and we are working diligently to bring them home," the White House said.
The repatriation comes amid doubts about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, with little to no signs that the country is prepared to or engaged in dismantling its nuclear program. Still, it was one of the four pillars of Trump and Kim’s joint declaration, and taking a first step to fulfill it will give the talks some much needed diplomatic momentum.
DPAA estimates that there are 7,697 Americans unaccounted for from the Korean War. Of those, approximately 5,300 are expected to be located in North Korea.
One hundred wooden transit caskets were delivered to the demilitarized zone at the North and South Korean border at the end of June.
U.S. and North Korean officials met twice during the week of July 16 to discuss the transfer of remains, according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
The White House statement noted that "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."
According to DPAA, North Korean officials have indicated they possess as many as 200 sets of remains recovered over the year.
"The commitment established within the Joint Statement between President Trump and Chairman Kim would repatriate these as was done in the early 1990s and would reinforce the humanitarian aspects of this mission," DPAA said in a release last month.
From 1990 to 1994, the U.S. recovered 208 caskets with as many as 400 remains contained inside of them. From 1996 to 2005, 229 additional caskets were found and transferred.
DPAA has identified locations where they believe there are major concentrations of remains inside North Korea. Twelve hundred are believed to be in POW Camp Burial Sites and 1,000 could be located near the DMZ. There are also believed to be 184 individual remains at a cemetery in Pyongyang.