US prepares to accept remains of soldiers killed in North Korea but verifying identities will still be a major challenge
Efforts to recover and return soldiers’ remains have stalled for more than a decade because of the North’s nuclear weapons development
The US military said it moved 100 wooden coffins to the inter-Korean border to prepare for North Korea’s returning of the remains of American soldiers who have been missing since the 1950-53 Korean war.
US Forces Korea spokesman Colonel Chad Carroll also said on Saturday that 158 metal transfer cases were sent to a US airbase near Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and would be used to send the remains home.
North Korea agreed to return US war remains during the June 12 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. While the US military preparations suggest that the repatriation of war remains could be imminent, it remains unclear when and how it would occur.
Earlier on Saturday, Carroll denied a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that US military vehicles carrying more than 200 caskets were planning to cross into North Korea on Saturday. He said plans for the repatriation were “still preliminary”.
US Forces Korea said in a statement later in the day that 100 wooden “temporary transit cases” built in Seoul were sent to the Joint Security Area at the border as part of preparations to “receive and transport remains in a dignified manner when we get the call to do so”.
From 1996 to 2005, joint US-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 US claims that the safety of recovery teams it sent during the administration of former President George W. Bush was not sufficiently guaranteed.
US officials have said earlier that the remains are believed to be some or all of the more than 200 that the North Koreans have had for some time. But the precise number and the identities – including whether they are US or allied service members – won’t be known until the remains are tested.
Once in Hawaii, forensic experts will face the challenge of identifying the remains. Among the techniques they could use are detective work with old photos, comparing DNA from remains to that of missing soldiers’ relatives and analysis of dental work.
A US official familiar with the process said the remains could be co-mingled – meaning not separated by individual – and could include people who were not American.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it could take months and even years to identify the remains.
Cases of co-mingled remains are the most difficult because they require identifying which skeletal fragments belong to the same person, said Luis Fondebrider, president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, a non-governmental group that applies forensic science to investigate human rights violations.
The degree that bones have broken down is also important, and deterioration, such as from being under soil, can affect whether DNA can be recovered, he said.
Remains that North Korea has handed over in the past have not always been identifiable as US troops, despite the dog tags North Korea handed over with them, according to a 1994 RAND Corporation research report.
Between 1990 and 1992, North Korea returned 46 sets of remains, according to the report.
“With no exception, every North Korean claim associated with human remains has shown to be false. For example, these 46 sets are actually fragments of more than 70 individuals,” the report said. Forensic analyses suggested none were American, the report said.
Richard Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, said last week that he had been told the North may have the remains of more than 200 American service members that were likely recovered from land during farming or construction and could be easily returned. But he said the vast majority have yet to be located and retrieved from various cemeteries and battlefields across the countryside.
“We’ve seen this before, and that was words on a paper and promises made, so now we have to see action,” he said.
More than 36,000 US troops died in the conflict, including those listed as missing in action. Close to 7,700 US troops remain unaccounted for from the Korean war, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.
The last time North Korea turned over remains was in 2007, when Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador and New Mexico governor, secured the return of six sets.
According to Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency, once the remains are turned over, they would be sent to one of two Defence Department facilities – Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam in Hawaii and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska – for tests to determine identification.
Additional reporting by Reuters