WASHINGTON/SEOUL - North Korea transferred 55 cases carrying the remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War, the White House said on Thursday, a first step by Pyongyang to implement an agreement made in a landmark summit in June in Singapore.
The repatriation of remains of US soldiers missing in the 1950-53 conflict is seen as a modest diplomatic coup for US President Donald Trump because it was one of the agreements reached during his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.
"Today, (Kim) 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," the White House said in a statement.
A US military transport plane flew to an airfield in North Korea's northeastern city of Wonsan to bring the remains to Osan air base in South Korea, the statement said.
Soldiers in dress uniforms with white gloves were seen slowly carrying 55 small cases covered with the blue-and-white United Nations insignia, placing them one by one into silver vans waiting on the tarmac in Osan.
Straight-backed officers looked on next to the flags of the United States, South Korea and the United Nations.
A formal repatriation ceremony would be held at Osan on Wednesday, the White House statement said.
The transfer of the remains coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended fighting, although the two Koreas are technically still at war because a peace treaty was never signed.
More than 7,700 US troops who fought in the Korean War remain unaccounted for, with about 5,300 of those lost in what is now North Korea.
The pledge to transfer war remains was seen as a goodwill gesture by Kim at the June summit and, while it has taken longer than some US officials had hoped, the handover will rekindle hopes for progress in nuclear talks.
Kim committed in a broad summit statement to work toward denuclearization but Pyongyang has offered no details about how it might go about this.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said the return of the remains could boost the momentum for the nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
The two Koreas agreed to hold general-level military talks on Tuesday to discuss ways to implement their own summit in April in which they vowed to defuse tensions, Seoul's defense ministry said on Friday.
Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the Korean War, calling it the "first process for peace" and an important way Washington can add heft to security guarantees it has pledged in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.
The US State Department says Washington is committed to building a peace mechanism to replace the armistice "when North Korea has denuclearized."
The UN Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning luxury goods said to include recreational sports equipment.
The United States has blocked a request by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to transfer sports equipment to North Korea so its athletes can participate in the Olympic Games, United Nations diplomats said on Thursday.