Man standing behind 55 blue-covered caskets in belly of cargo plane (U.S. Army/Sergeant Quince Lanford)
U.N. Command Chaplain Sam Lee performs a blessing of sacrifice and remembrance on the 55 cases of remains returned by North Korea. (U.S. Army/Sergeant Quince Lanford)

In a solemn ceremony at a South Korean air base, members of a United Nations honor guard transferred 55 caskets from North Korea carrying the remains of what are believed to be U.S. military service members killed in the Korean War.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft departed North Korea on July 27 local time carrying the 55 caskets, draped in the blue flag of the United Nations. A formal repatriation ceremony will be held at Osan Air Base in South Korea on August 1. After that ceremony, U.S. forensics specialists in Hawaii will seek to identify the remains.

Soldier carrying casket walking past other soldiers (© Kim Hong-Ji/AP Images)
A soldier carries a U.N. flag-draped casket believed to hold remains of a U.S. service member who fought for allied U.N. forces in the Korean War. (© Kim Hong-Ji/AP Images)

This handover fulfilled part of North Korea’s commitments made at the historic June 12 summit between U.S. President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Kim promised to return the remains of American service members who fell in the Korean War. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he is pleased Kim “is following through on that commitment.”

Soldiers standing at attention by aircraft while two carry caskets (© Ahn Young-joon/AP Images)
A U.N. honor guard meets soldiers disembarking a U.S. Air Force C-17 with caskets believed to carry remains of U.S. service members killed in the Korean War. (© Ahn Young-joon/AP Images)

During that summit, North Korea also reaffirmed its commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

A first step

“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in a statement released in Washington on July 26. “This will be a great moment for so many families,” the president tweeted July 26.

The remains of an estimated 5,300 American soldiers have not returned from North Korea. The White House expressed hope that this repatriation is just the first step.

Airmen in uniform saluting line of vans (© Kim Hong-Ji/AP Images)
U.S. airmen salute vehicles transporting the remains returned by North Korea. (© Kim Hong-Ji/AP Images)

“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 White House said. “It is a solemn obligation of the United States government to ensure that the remains are handled with dignity and properly accounted for so their families receive them in an honorable manner.”