Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the return of 55 sets of remains by North Korea could set the stage for renewed ground searches by U.S. recovery teams for those still listed as missing in action from the 1950-53 Korean War.
The flight into North Korea by a U.S. military aircraft to retrieve the 55 wooden cases was a "step in the right direction" and sets a "positive tone" for future recovery efforts, Mattis told Pentagon reporters.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said North Korea had agreed to return remains already in its possession and would be open to renewing joint recovery efforts at the sites of former prison camps and battlefields.
Mattis noted that the North Koreans handed over only 55 sets of remains when they were expected to return about 200. "We know what [the North Koreans] said" leading up to Friday's returns, but "for us, we simply say this is a gesture of carrying forward" a commitment to more recoveries, he said.
"Obviously, we want to continue with this humanitarian effort" on behalf of U.S. families and those of other nations who fought with the U.S. under the United Nations flag in the Korean War, he added.
"We have families that when they got the telegram" notifying them of the death of a loved one "they never got closure," Mattis said. "What we're seeing here is an opportunity to get those families closure. So this is an international effort to bring closure to those families."
Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations Command, set Aug. 1 for a solemn ceremony at which the U.S. military will take formal custody of the 55 sets of remains and start the long process of sending them home to their families.
"Now, we will prepare to honor our fallen before they continue on their journey home," Brooks said Friday.
Earlier, a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster made a rare flight into North Korea and returned from an airport near Wonsan on North Korea's east coast to Osan Air Base south of Seoul with 55 wooden transfer caskets draped in the United Nations flag.
An honor guard from all the services and technical experts from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) were aboard the flight.
At Mattis' direction, the initial returns were under the auspices of the United Nations, which oversees the armistice that ended the Korean War 65 years ago Friday.
"It was a successful mission following extensive coordination," Brooks said. At the honors ceremony Aug. 1, U.S. flags will replace those of the U.N. on the boxes and the remains will then be flown to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
In Hawaii, DPAA forensic labs will begin the painstaking process of identification.
The DPAA has built up a DNA database from relatives for about 92 percent of those missing from the Korean War, but retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, DPAA's director, has cautioned that it could be years in some cases before remains are returned to families.
The White House called the return of the 55 sets of remains a "first step" toward realizing the promises on North Korea's denuclearization and remains recoveries made at the June 12 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a tweet Thursday night after the C-17 landed at Osan, Trump said, "After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un."
A day earlier, Pompeo was hammered from both sides of the aisle at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the lack of progress from the Singapore summit and the Helsinki summit earlier this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Kim in Singapore "took a bold first step to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, transform relations between the United States and North Korea, and establish enduring peace."
"Today, the chairman is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the president to return our fallen American service members. We are encouraged by North Korea's actions and the momentum for positive change," Sanders said, adding, "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 government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was a main catalyst in thawing relations with North Korea, said the repatriations are a sign of "meaningful progress."
"We expect efforts by parties concerned to further accelerate for promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said in a statement.
Trump issued a proclamation declaring July 27, the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, as National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day.
"Justice, liberty, and democracy prevailed" in the Korean War, "but victory came at a tremendous cost," he said. "More than 33,000 Americans were killed in action during the Korean War, and more than 103,000 were wounded. Thousands more were captured and held as prisoners of war. Many are still missing in action. We will never forget these valiant patriots or their families, who have endured unimaginable loss."
According to the DPAA, about 7,700 U.S. service members are missing from the Korean War; about 5,300 of that total are believed to have fallen in North Korea.
Over the years, the DPAA has developed a list of former prison camps and other sites in North Korea where remains could be expected to be found, including estimates on the numbers of remains at each site.
A DPAA fact sheet said that as many as 184 remains of American service members are believed to have been buried in a cemetery in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
The agency estimates that about 1,200 remains could be found at former prison camps near the Chinese border, including camps called Apex, where the remains of 270 Americans are thought to be interred; Camp 5, with 322 sets of remains; Death Valley Camp, with 250; Valley No. 1 Camp, with 41; and the Suan camps, with 185.
The People's Liberation Army of China ran the prison camps during the war, and China's help may be needed to aid in the search if and when recovery efforts get underway.
Another 1,549 sets of remains are believed to be in Unsan/Chongchon area north of Pyongyang, and 1,079 in the area of the Chosin Reservoir, scene of one of the major battles of the war. In addition, another 1,000 are believed to be in the Demilitarized Zone, the 154-mile wide zone separating the two Koreas, the DPAA said.
From 1990 to 1994, North Korea returned 208 caskets of remains, and from 1996 to 2005, when recoveries were suspended, another 229 caskets were returned. Many of the remains were mixed, the DPAA said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.