A US Air Force plane carrying what is believed to be the remains of US troops killed during the Korean War some 65 years ago arrived in Osan Air Base in South Korea, Friday morning.
North Korean officials handed over the probable remains on the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the conflict, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, over 600,000 Chinese, 600,000 Korean soldiers and over a million Korean civilians.
Troops from various nations serving in South Korea under the United Nations command presented an honor guard before the plane, as white-gloved troops in different uniforms descended the ramp of the C-17, carefully holding cases wrapped in the UN flag.
The cases were transferred to silver minivans waiting on the runway.
The US Air Force C-17 had left to Osan Air Base earlier on Friday, to fly to the city of Wonsan, in North Korea, before completing the return journey, the White House said in a statement.
In Wonsan the North Koreans turned over what they say are an initial 55 cases holding remains, a US official told CNN’s Ryan Browne.
It may take months of detailed DNA analysis to determine how many American service members can be identified.
CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that each case of remains will be opened and photographed inside North Korea, before take-off. Upon arrival at Osan Air Base, US forensic specialists will then conduct a more in-depth assessment of the remains as well as an examination of any military uniform, identification tags or documentation. That review could take up to five days.
This will be followed by a formal military ceremony at the air base before the remains are flown to a US military laboratory in Hawaii for DNA analysis.
The return of the remains was one commitment North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to when he met with US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12.
The transfer has been repeatedly delayed since. At one point, North Korean officials canceled a meeting with American counterparts to discuss the handover. Even as Friday began, there was still uncertainty over whether the transfer would occur.
With the return of the remains, the onus shifts onto Trump. The North Koreans could now argue that they have begun to fulfill their part of the bargain struck in Singapore.
“Today, the Chairman is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the President to return our fallen American service members,” the White House statement said. “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”
There are thousands of Americans who remain unaccounted for after the war, which began when the North invaded the South in 1950.
Korea was divided into two parts under Japanese rule before and during World War II. After the Japanese surrender, the Soviet Union occupied the area north of the 38th parallel and the United States occupied the area south until 1948.
Of the nearly 8,000 Americans who were killed in battle, missing or captured, more than 5,000 of them were believed to be in North Korea. Since 1990, North Korea has repatriated the remains of 340 US troops.