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Mattis: U.S. Must Make Sure Korea War Remains Are Real

Newsweek logo Newsweek 7/27/2018 Tom O'Connor
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The U.S. must verify that the remains of troops killed during the Korean War and being sent back by North Korea are real before accepting them.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters Friday that North Korea's decision to turn over 55 caskets believed to contain the remains of U.S. and allied soldiers who died during a brutal three-year war between communist-backed North Korea and United Nations-backed South Korea in the early 1950s "sets a positive environment and tone for other things in terms of international diplomacy." Following his remarks, however, he revealed that a review would have to be made before officially accepting the offer from the longtime U.S. foe.

“The reason those remains aren’t on their way back to the United States right now, is, that they are first going to be reviewed initially there in Korea. and we’ll look for any anomalies where they’re not what we think they might be," Mattis told the Military Times in an interview.

"And then the forensics will begin when we land them in Hawaii, where the laboratory is. But we have no indications that there is anything amiss. But we don’t know, we can’t confirm it one way or another. That is why we go through all of the forensics," he added.

The Korean War claimed the lives of over 36,000 U.S. soldiers, 130,000 South Korean troops and over 2,000 allies, as well as hundreds of thousands of Chinese and North Korean soldiers. To this day, the remains of about 7,700 U.S. personnel have not been recovered and Mattis called North Korea's latest move "an opportunity to give those families closure." He noted that the caskets received bear the flag of the U.N. because the nationalities of the deceased have yet to be determined, and added the U.S. was interested in eventually working out a deal to send teams into North Korea to continue the search.

For the time being, though, Mattis described North Korea's decision to repatriate the remains as "obviously a gesture of carrying forward" what was agreed upon by North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump during their summit in Singapore last month. The meeting marked the first of its kind between a North Korean ruler and sitting U.S. president and both sides emerged declaring a change in course after decades of hostility.

On Friday, Trump tweeted his thanks to Kim for coming through on his pledge to return the Korean War remains. Later that day, he expanded on his remarks while speaking on the state of the economy at the White House. Trump called the matter "important for the lives of not only Americans, but lives all over the world."

"At this moment, a plane is carrying the remains of some great fallen heroes from America, back from the Korean War. They’re coming back to the United States. Mike Pence, our wonderful Vice President, will be there to greet the families and the remains," Trump said. "And I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word. We have many others coming. But I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me. And I’m sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search."

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Trump has also recently praised North Korea for apparently making good on another key promise. Kim has agreed to abandon the nuclear weapons North Korea has long argued was necessary for its survival. In exchange, the U.S. has agreed to soften its stance against the notoriously secretive, authoritarian state, including the potential establishment of a formal peace treaty to end the technically ongoing Korean War and the lifting of sanctions relating to the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles launched by Kim and his predecessors.

After initial reports criticized the apparent non-action on the North Korean side, recent commercial satellite imagery showed what was appeared to be the rapid dismantling of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a major part of North Korea's ballistic missile program. The State Department said Tuesday the photos were "consistent" with commitments made by Kim at the Singapore summit.

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