It has been a watershed moment in the history of Korea and the spirit of bonhomie that marked the recent Trump-Kim summit has been upheld, the commitment fulfilled. Indeed, the 65th anniversary of the Korean war could scarcely have been more momentous. The remains of an unknown number of US soldiers killed in the conflict were handed over by North Korea on Friday, in a move that has been hailed by Donald Trump as a “great moment”.
As the soldiers of Pyongyang saluted the US military plane as it was about to land on the airfield in the North Korean city of Wonsan, it signified that the historical frost had melted further still. By any reckoning, it has been a remarkable gesture on the part of President Kim Jong-un, considering that the profoundly emotive issue had figured in the Singapore talks with President Trump.
For all his occasional bluster, the equally mercurial President Kim has kept his promise. Yet he has miles to go before the world can rest assured that he will abjure his belligerence in matters nuclear. The event opens a new, and still more crucially, a positive chapter in US-North Korean relations. “Today, Kim Jong-un is fulfilling part of the commitment he made to the President to return our fallen American service members,” the White House said in a statement. “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.” It is fervently to be hoped that the momentum will be sustained on either side of the Pacific, and this must of necessity entail a cessation in the blast of missiles from the North, targeted at the US or anywhere else.
This is the core issue. About 7,700 US soldiers are listed as missing from the Korean war, and 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea. The war had killed millions, including 36,000 American soldiers and in less than a decade after World War II. Indeed, Pyongyang had been expected to return about 55 “sets of remains” from the 1950-53 Korean war, a step meant to fulfil a commitment made by Kim during his summit with Trump in June. Friday marked the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean war. North Korea celebrates it as the day of “victory in the fatherland liberation war”.
The ugliest aspect of that “victory” was eventually addressed on the war’s 65th anniversary. From 1953 to 2018 is a long enough period in the history of two nations. Geopolitics for the better part of the 20th century would arguably have been different had the remains of the fallen been returned to the US much earlier. The issue was no less formidable than the North’s nuclear ambitions. Efforts to recover the American war dead had been stalled for more than a decade because of a standoff over the regime’s nuclear programme and a previous US claim that security arrangements for its personnel working in the North were insufficient.
Friday’s handover will hopefully rekindle expectationsa for progress in the nuclear talks.