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U.S. prepares for North Korea's return of American war remains

Image: Repatriation service
North Korean soldiers carry a coffin believed to contain the remains of a U.S. soldier to the border with South Korea during repatriation ceremonies at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, in October 1998. Copyright YUN SUK BONG
Copyright YUN SUK BONG
By Associated Press and Reuters with NBC News World News
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North Korea agreed to send home U.S. war remains during the June 12 summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

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SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. military said Saturday that it was moving "assets" to a U.S. air base near South Korea's capital and to the inter-Korean border to prepare for North Korea to return the remains of U.S. soldiers who have been missing since the 1950-53 Korean War.

But U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Chad Carroll denied a report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency that U.S. military vehicles carrying more than 200 caskets were planning to cross into North Korea on Saturday.

Pyongyang agreed to send home U.S. war remains during the June 12 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

Carroll said in an email that the U.S.-led U.N. Command was moving "assets" to a U.S. air base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, south of Seoul, and to the Joint Security Area at the border to prepare for the process, but that plans were "still preliminary."

Earlier Saturday, Yonhap cited an unnamed source as saying that about 30 U.S. military vehicles carrying 215 caskets were expected to cross into the North on Saturday afternoon. Carroll called the report "completely false," but didn't immediately reply to an inquiry about the number of caskets being readied.

Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea military search teams conducted 33 recovery operations that collected 229 sets of American remains.

But efforts to recover and return other remains have stalled for more than a decade because of the North's nuclear weapons development and U.S. claims that the safety of recovery teams it sent during the administration of former President George W. Bush was not sufficiently guaranteed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to indefinitely suspend two exchange program training exercises, the Pentagon said on Friday, in the aftermath of the summit earlier this month.

"To support implementing the outcomes of the Singapore Summit, and in coordination with our Republic of Korea ally, Secretary Mattis has indefinitely suspended select exercises," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.

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"This includes suspending FREEDOM GUARDIAN along with two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months," White said.

At a news conference after the meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced that he would halt what he called"very provocative" and expensive regular military exercises that the United States holds with South Korea. North Korea had long sought an end to the war games.

This week, the United States and South Korea said they were suspending planning for August's Freedom Guardian exercise.

Last year, 17,500 American troops and more than 50,000 South Korean troops joined the Freedom Guardian drills, although the exercise is mostly focused on computerized simulations rather than field exercises.

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