The US military said on Saturday it was moving “assets” to an air base near Seoul and to the border with North Korea, to prepare for the return by Pyongyang of the remains of US soldiers missing since the Korean war ended in an armistice in 1953.
But a US Forces Korea spokesman, Col Chad Carroll, denied a report by the South Korean Yonhap news agency that US military vehicles carrying more than 200 caskets were planning to cross into North Korea.
North Korea agreed to send home US war remains during the 12 June summit in Singapore between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. At a rally in Minnesota this week, Trump claimed North Korea had already returned the remains of 200 troops.
“We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back,” Trump told a crowd in Duluth.
There was no official confirmation or denial of the president’s claim.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday North Korea would soon hand over a “sizeable number” of remains to United Nations Command in South Korea. The remains would be transferred to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, the officials said.
On Saturday, Carroll said in an email to the Associated Press that the US-led UN Command was moving “assets” to an air base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, and to the Joint Security Area at the border. Plans were “still preliminary”, he said.
Earlier, Yonhap cited an unnamed source as saying that about 30 US military vehicles carrying 215 caskets were expected to cross into the North on Saturday afternoon. Carroll called that report “completely false”.
US Forces Korea later said it had moved 100 wooden coffins to the inter-Korean border on Saturday to prepare for North Korea’s returning of the remains of American soldiers who have been missing since the 1950-53 Korean War.
About 7,700 US military personnel remain unaccounted for from the Korean war, US military data show. According to the Pentagon, North Korean officials have indicated in the past they have the remains of as many as 200 US troops. More than 36,500 US troops died in the conflict, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.
Between 1996 and 2005, joint US-North Korea military search teams conducted 33 recovery operations that collected 229 sets of American remains.
Efforts to recover and return other remains have stalled because of the North’s nuclear weapons development and US claims that the safety of recovery teams sent during the administration of George W Bush was not sufficiently guaranteed.