New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, left, and Anthony Principi, former U.S. veterans affairs secretary, second from left, paid respects yesterday to the remains of six American soldiers from the Korean War on North Korea's side of the border village of Panmunjom. The remains are headed to Hawaii, where they will be taken to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to undergo forensic identification. CLICK FOR LARGE
U.S. troops' remains leave N. Korea
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea » Troops and diplomats from countries that fought in the Korean War paid respects yesterday at the repatriation of remains recovered from North Korea of six American servicemen who died more than a half-century ago.
Dozens of military personnel in dress uniforms stood at attention behind the six coffins draped in blue United Nations flags -- representing the U.S.-led U.N. alliance that battled the North after it invaded South Korea in 1950.
The remains were brought Tuesday from the North to South Korea by a U.S. delegation led by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Anthony Principi, former U.S. veterans affairs secretary. During a four-day visit to Pyongyang, the U.S. officials -- joined by the top White House adviser on Korea, Victor Cha -- pressed the North to follow through on its promise to start dismantling its nuclear weapons programs.
At the repatriation today, U.S. Army Gen. B.B. Bell praised the efforts of troops from 21 nations that fought to help South Korea deter the North during the war, which ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty -- leaving the two Koreas still at war.
"It was their selfless service and ultimate sacrifice that saved the nation, giving the people of the Republic of Korea an opportunity to forge their destiny," said Bell, the top U.S. commander on the peninsula, referring to South Korea by its official name.
Military officials saluted the coffins as they were taken from a gymnasium at Yongsan Garrison, the main U.S. base in central Seoul, to six polished hearses while a band played "Abide With Me."
The ceremony provided a stark contrast to when the delegation received the remains Tuesday in North Korea, where they had been packed into six small black cases and lined up on a road near the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas. From there they were escorted across the border into South Korea, where they were then transferred to coffins.
Earlier yesterday, Richardson met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who said their mission to the North would help reconciliation between the two Koreas, according to the governor.
The remains were to be flown to Hawaii for identification. Three of the sets of the remains came with identification tags.
More than 33,000 U.S. troops died in the Korean War, and some 8,100 U.S. servicemen are still listed as missing.
The U.S. and North Korea had previously been involved in a joint project to recover remains in the North, but the effort was halted in 2005 after Washington said security arrangements for its personnel were insufficient. The program had recovered remains believed to be from 220 soldiers since 1996.