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

North Korea agreed to send home U.S. war remains during the June 12 summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
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.YUN SUK BONG / Reuters

SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. military said Saturday that it was moving caskets to the Korean border village of Panmunjom in preparation for North Korea to return the remains of U.S. soldiers who have been missing since the 1950-53 Korean War.

A spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea said around 100 caskets were sent to the border Saturday, while some 50 or 60 more would be sent to the border over the coming days as the U.S. waits for North Korea to confirm the time and date for the transfer.

"We're anticipating around 200 to 250 remains and so that is what we're preparing for," the spokesperson told NBC News. "It could happen any second and we are getting ready for that."

The spokesperson said the caskets were ready to transfer the remains is a "dignified manner."

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.

The caskets are expected to be taken from the Panmunjom border village to a U.S. airbase south of the South Korean capital of Seoul.

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.

"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.

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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.