President Donald Trump said Tuesday that North Korea has committed to returning the remains of the missing from the Korean War, giving hope to the families of more than 7,800 service members that they will finally get a full accounting.
Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to the "immediate repatriation" in a last-minute deal reached at their historic summit in Singapore.
The issue of the missing-in-action had had been pressed on him by the families, and he went into the matter in "great detail" with Kim during their discussions, Trump said at a news conference before leaving Singapore.
"I must have had just countless calls and letters and Tweets, anything you can do -- they want the remains of their sons back," he said of the families.
"They want the remains of their fathers, and mothers, and all of the people that got caught into that really brutal war, which took place, to a large extent, in North Korea," Trump said. "And I asked for it today, and we got it. That was a very last minute. The remains will be coming back. They're going to start that process immediately.
"But so many people, even during the campaign, they'd say, 'Is there any way you can work with North Korea to get the remains of my son back or my father back?' So many people asked me this question," he said.
"And, you know, I said, 'Look, we don't get along too well with that particular group of people.' But now we do. And he agreed to that so quickly and so nice -- it was really a very nice thing, and he understands it. He understands it," Trump said of Kim.
The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim stated: "The United States and the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified."
The general statement on "immediate repatriation" could refer to remains North Korea already has in storage but were never returned after joint recovery efforts were suspended in 2005 amid the political impasse over North Korean provocations and advances in its missile and nuclear programs.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which had called for Trump and Kim to address the issue of the missing prior to the summit, hailed the agreement.
"We must have hope that this agreement will finally bring peace to the peninsula and help bring closure to thousands of families of missing American servicemen from the Korean War," Keith Harman, national commander of the VFW, said in a statement. "Now the hard work to bring the initiative to fruition begins."
A joint declaration after the first meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader called the summit "an epochal event of great significance in overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries and for the opening up of a new future."
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose efforts were crucial in bringing Trump and Kim together, said there would be no turning back on an agreement that held out the prospect for lasting peace on the peninsula.
"Building upon the agreement reached today, we will take a new path going forward. Leaving dark days of war and conflict behind, we will write a new chapter of peace and cooperation. We will be there together with North Korea along the way," Moon said in a statement.
On June 6, South Korea's Memorial Day, Moon said the return of the remains of missing Americans and the estimated 120,000 South Koreans also missing from the 1950-53 war was a top priority for the Trump-Kim summit.
"When the South-North relations improve, we will push first for the recovery of remains in the Demilitarized Zone," the 154-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide area separating the two Koreas, Moon said.
According to the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 7,800 Americans have not been accounted for from the war, and about 5,300 of that total are believed to have been lost in battle in North Korea or buried at prisoner-of-war camps.
Past recovery efforts have centered on the area around the Chosin reservoir, scene of a horrific battle in the winter of 1950 in which Marine and Army units fought against encirclement by Chinese forces.
"Once we're directed to resume operations in [North] Korea, that's what we'll do," said Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for DoD's Pow/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
"When approved by the U.S. government, DPAA is prepared to receive any remains the DPRK are holding as well as to begin discussions on resuming recovery missions in North Korea," he said.
Pritchard said the agency already has personnel on the ground in South Korea working with their South Korean counterparts on recoveries in the South. "We're continuing to work to try to resolve cases from the Korea conflict," he said.
He said the agency periodically meets with the families of the missing from Korea and the Cold War to update them on the status of recoveries; the next meeting is scheduled for August in Washington, D.C.
Thus far this year, the agency has positively identified the remains of 19 service members who were missing-in-action in North Korea, Pritchard said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.