U.S. and North Korean military officials met on the inter-Korean border on Sunday to discuss the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, the first time in nine years that generals from the two sides have held talks, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
The repatriation of U.S. remains was one of the agreements reached during an unprecedented summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June in Singapore.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled the plan for talks after visiting Pyongyang this month, touting it as one of key issues on which the two sides had made progress, though the North accused his delegation of making “gangster-like” demands in connection with denuclearization during the trip.
Pompeo initially said the two sides had agreed to hold talks on U.S. remains on Thursday but no North Korea representatives showed up on the border. North Korea then proposed meeting U.S. military officials on Sunday, U.S. and South Korean officials have said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing South Korean government and U.S. military sources, said the negotiations had begun at 0100 GMT at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
Three vehicles of U.S. forces in South Korea, flying U.N. flags, were spotted heading to the border earlier in the day, Yonhap said.
Michael Minihan, an Air Force major general at U.S. Forces Korea who doubles as chief of staff for the U.N. Command (UNC), was representing the U.S. side and his counterpart is expected to be a military commander stationed in the DMZ, the news agency said.
A UNC official said he had no information to confirm the report, though preparations had been made for Sunday’s talks.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Seoul was not available for comment. There was no report on North Korean state media about the meeting.
North Korea and the United States conducted joint operations to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers from 1996 to 2005 but their relations soured as Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear program. In 2013, the North severed its hotline with the UNC, declaring the armistice that ended the Korean War null and void.
The Pentagon has said North Korean officials have indicated in the past they have the remains of as many as 200 U.S. troops. But a U.S. military official familiar with the matter said last month it was not clear what North Korea might hand over.
U.S. forces brought some 100 wooden coffins into the DMZ last month, which will be used to transport the remains, according to Yonhap.
Just hours after Pompeo left Pyongyang on July 7, the North said it offered to discuss declaring a formal end to the Korean War, but the U.S. side showed little interest, giving “certain conditions and excuses.”
The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Reuters was unable to confirm whether the armistice issue was discussed at Sunday’s talks.
At the Singapore summit, Kim Jong Un made a broad commitment to “work toward denuclearization”, but fell short of details on how or when he would dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, which it has pursued in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Pompeo had hoped to “fill in” details on how to dismantle the North’s nuclear program and recover the remains of U.S. troops in his talks in Pyongyang this month.
He later said he had made progress on setting a timeline for North Korea’s denuclearization.