North Korea on Friday returned dozens of containers holding the remains of U.S. troops killed and missing since the Korean War, fulfilling a commitment its leader, Kim Jong Un, made to President Trump during their summit last month.
The negotiated exchange returned 55 cases containing the remains of some of the more than 7,000 Americans who have been unaccounted for since the war, which ended with a cease-fire agreement in 1953.
Though part of a diplomatic deal, analysts noted that the move was a painless concession for North Korea, which has shown signs of souring relations with the United States since what appeared on the surface to be a positive summit in Singapore on June 12.
The Trump administration had hoped that the meeting would lead to steps toward the abandonment of the totalitarian state’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, though little verifiable progress has occurred since.
The return of the troops’ remains keeps some momentum from the agreement, analysts said.
“It is a step forward, but a small one,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University who blogs about East Asian security issues. “We shouldn’t be cold-hearted. We should bargain for these concessions. But we are still dancing around the serious strategic issues.”
Those issues, of course, remain the North’s illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, which offer Kim’s dynastic regime security — and negotiating power with adversaries such as the United States.
Kim this year boasted that the North, which could have as many as 60 nuclear weapons, according to Western intelligence estimates, had the ability to strike the United States mainland with a nuclear-armed, long-range missile. His government test-fired three missiles last year that appeared to demonstrate this capability.
The United Nations, South Korea and the United States have all imposed sanctions intended to punish Kim’s government for its nuclear activities, which have included dozens of missile launches and four underground detonations in defiance of the international community since Kim took power in late 2011.
Kim, whose nation has an abysmal human rights record and inconsistent reputation on past agreements, has also said he would only use the weapons defensively against the United States.
The United States has remained allied with democratic South Korea, now the world’s 11th-largest economy, and it maintains more than 28,000 troops that protect Seoul — but also act as an additional regional security hub with its large military presence inside ally Japan.
The North and South, sister countries that have been split by the war but share a common language, ethnic identity and history, still maintain a tense security relationship.
Recent diplomatic meetings sparked by their shared participation in the Winter Olympics earlier this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, have renewed hope that the nations might reach a formal peace settlement. Tensions on the surface have eased.
Better diplomatic relations was the first point in Trump’s agreement with Kim, which also called for an effort to formally end to the war, a commitment to “work toward” peninsula denuclearization and the repatriation of the remains of missing American troops.
The North seems to be taking the easiest step first, analysts said.
“This is the least risky agreement that the North Korean authorities can carry out,” said Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. “It’s a good start.”
A peace deal, though, would require approval from the United States and China, the latter of which entered the Korean War in October 1950. That helped halt a rapid advance by American troops into the North. The United States, under the authority of the United Nations Command, and China were signatories to the armistice.
The United States and China have decent diplomatic relations but maintain divergent regional security interests, and the Trump administration’s threats of a trade war have strained the relationship lately. Kim has also visited China three times in recent months, suggesting the North is rebuilding a relationship with its historic neighbor that could challenge the United States’ influence in the region.
Many of the troops whose remains were still unaccounted for died in the first year of the war, during brutal winter fighting as the Chinese attacked and the Americans got bogged down around the Chosin Reservoir in the North.
The job of recovering the remains began Friday when the 55 cases of remains were returned by the North Koreans. They were retrieved from Wonson, a port city in eastern North Korea that also doubles as a missile test site and a seaside resort.
The remains were then flown to Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, U.S. Army officials said.
A “full honors” ceremony was expected Wednesday with Gen. Vincent Brooks, who leads the United Nations Command and United States Forces Korea.
Then the remains are expected to be flown to Hawaii for analysis by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is charged with recovering and identifying troops from several past wars, including Korea and Vietnam.
Forensic tests are required to identify the fallen troops and determine how many were returned in the cases, government officials have said.
The process is complicated, but military officials heralded the exchange.
“It was a successful mission following extensive coordination,” Brooks said in a written statement. “Now, we will prepare to honor our fallen before they continue on their journey home.”
The South Korean government, whose president, Moon Jae-in, has spearheaded much of the diplomatic progress made in recent months, said it welcomed Friday’s repatriation as a “humanitarian action that can contribute to healing the pains of the war.”
“The government evaluates the return as meaningful progress that can contribute to trust building between the two countries,” said presidential spokesman Noh Kyu-deok.
Some observers remained skeptical that the move by Pyongyang signaled meaningful progress on the Trump-Kim agreement, which includes denuclearization. Others were downright dismissive of the move, which had been delayed longer than expected amid a squabble between Washington and Pyongyang after Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s recent visit.
The North Koreans, in state media, said the United States presented “gangster-like” demands. Pompeo said the parties were making progress.
Outside groups who track North Korean satellite imagery, for example, said the nation appeared to be dismantling a missile testing site — a move that could be reversible in months.
“This is something any civilized nation would have done decades ago,” said Grant Newsham, a former American diplomat and military officer who is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
“Given the track record of dealing with North Korea, skepticism is warranted. I don’t consider anything Kim has done since Singapore to be a genuine sign of good faith.”