YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Two sets of U.S. servicemember remains were repatriated Thursday in an honor guard ceremony after a sometimes-tense joint recovery mission concluded earlier this week in North Korea.

During the mission, North Korean officials accused Americans of putting graffiti on the frame and plywood backing of two photographs of the communist country’s two and only leaders, Kim Il Sung and his now-ruling son, Kim Jong Il, said Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii.

Nielson-Green said stickers with “military logos” were on the back of the frames along with writing, and the command is investigating. She said the fronts of the photos were not defaced.

Photos of both Kims adorn most buildings in North Korea. The country fosters a cultlike respect of the leaders, so much so that items with their likeness are considered sacred.

It is not believed that the most recent, 28-member recovery team that carried the remains across the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday into South Korea was responsible for the stickers, Nielson-Green said. “It was very clear that the folks up there had nothing to do with it,” she said.

Nielson-Green added that the command has had some difficulty with “cultural sensitivities” with the North Koreans. But the command takes the incident very seriously and does not condone destruction of property, she said.

No apology was given by the United States, Nielson-Green said.

“The United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have built a significant measure of trust, and this matter was quickly resolved with no loss of work and the mission continues,” according to a written statement issued by JPAC.

And the 2004 missions have been very successful, said Marine Col. Claude Davis, deputy JPAC commander. It was the third recovery mission this year in North Korea, concentrating on Unsan County about 60 miles north of Pyongyang.

The U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry Divisions fought there in November 1950, he said after Thursday’s repatriation ceremony. A second team concentrated on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir area, where the 31st Regimental Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division fought, Davis said.

The two sets of remains will be flown to JPAC’s headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for forensic identification.

JPAC is hoping to gain access to the west side of the Chosin Reservoir, where the 1st Marine Division fought. The command is scheduled for negotiations with the North Koreans in November, Davis said.

Two more recovery missions are slated for this year, Nielson-Green said. The previous two missions this year resulted in 19 recovered remains.

Thirty joint operations have been conducted in North Korea since 1996, and more than 200 remains believed to be those of U.S. soldiers have been recovered. About 8,100 U.S. servicemembers are still missing from the Korean War.

“Today we honor two people who gave their lives so Korean people could be free,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, deputy chief of staff for the U.N. Command. “These warriors wrote the first chapter of a new Korea.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now