SEOUL — In Southeast Asia, anthropologists face Indiana Jones-like hurdles to find the remains of U.S. troops lost in battle decades ago — jungles, poisonous snakes and acidic soil that can erode bones before they’re ever found.

In South Korea, obstacles are more modern but just as daunting — high-rise apartments that cover land where soldiers could be buried.

"One of the main, significant difficulties you see every time you look outside: This place is incredibly developed," said Charles Ray, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. "I have difficulty recognizing places where I spent a lot of time. Places that were once rice paddies are massive condominiums."

Ray and other top officials with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command spoke with Stars and Stripes on Wednesday during a visit to South Korea. During their weeklong trip, they met with South Korean officials to discuss South Korea’s search for its missing, which often overlaps with the U.S. search for its missing.

JPAC is a U.S. military organization based in Hawaii that works to recover the remains of 88,000 troops unaccounted for since World War II. About 8,100 U.S. troops still are missing on the Korean peninsula, most in North Korea.

Ray said JPAC tries to recover troops who disappeared during the Korean War in areas that haven’t been developed.

"You just can’t dig up a condominium," said Ray, who lived in South Korea during the 1970s and early 1980s. North Korea returned about 200 sets of remains to the United States in the early 1990s, but JPAC excavation teams aren’t allowed to search there.

"In the North, we know where remains are at," Ray said. "They’ve virtually been untouched since the end of the war."

In the South, the 1,000 or so remains considered recoverable are harder to find. Some are located in the land mine-strewn Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

Some soldiers were taken captive in South Korea and died during marches to POW camps in the North, said Johnie Webb, deputy commander for JPAC. He said JPAC relies on South Koreans — rural farmers, veterans or their children — who might remember where those unmarked graves are.

About 130,000 South Korean troops remain missing from the war.

"During the Korean War, you had many battles where South Korean and U.S. soldiers fought side-by-side," Ray said. They also died next to each other, and anthropologists must make sure the bones don’t get transported to the wrong country.

JPAC helped South Korea form its own accounting command about a year ago. South Korea sent two officers to JPAC headquarters in Hawaii for 90 days, where they were "immersed" in the command, working in all sections to get an overview of how it functions, Webb said. Two South Korean anthropologists also spent 60 days working in JPAC’s lab, he said.

JPAC recovers the remains of one or two U.S. servicemembers in South Korea each year, Webb said. JPAC recently postponed a scheduled underwater recovery mission in the Pyeongtaek harbor due to concerns over avian flu and is considering another underwater recovery mission in the Han River.

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