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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Friday, July 27, 2018.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Friday, July 27, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon could send military teams into North Korea to search for the remains of thousands of missing Americans who fought during the Korean War if relations between the North and the United States continue to improve, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

Restarting a long-stalled program that sent American military personnel into North Korea to search for remains of U.S. war dead and former prisoners of war is under consideration, Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. Joint U.S.-North Korean military searches for American remains were suspended in 2005 by former President George W. Bush as tensions increased between the nations over North Korean nuclear activity.

“It’s certainly something we’re interested in exploring with the North Koreans,” Mattis said. “We look at it as a first step of a restored process, so we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home – perhaps have our own teams go in.”

Between the mid-1990s and 2005, the joint teams conducted 33 recovery operations that resulted in the collection of 229 American remains, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA.

Mattis’ statement came just hours after North Korea returned 55 boxes containing the remains of what are believed to be American servicemembers.

Pentagon officials previously indicated the North Koreans had about 200 boxes of remains believed to be Americans. Mattis said Friday that he did not know why only 55 were returned.

Nonetheless, Mattis said the return of the remains was a key first step in improving relations between the two countries.

“We have families that … never had closure,” he said. “They never went out and had the bodies returned. So, what we’re seeing here is an opportunity to give those families closure to make certain that we continue to look for those remaining.”

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to the return of the remains in their high-profile summit last month in Singapore. The White House said the two leaders agreed at that time that the North would return all American remains that it held. The United States, at the time, announced it would indefinitely suspend joint military drills with its ally South Korea.

Trump on Friday thanked Kim for “keeping his word” on returning the remains and indicated he anticipated more would be turned over in the future.

“We have many others coming but I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me and I’m sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search,” Trump said. “… These incredible American heroes will soon lay at rest on sacred American soil.”

The return of the remains Friday could shape future talks as the United States seeks North Korea’s denuclearization, Mattis said.

“I think when you have that sort of communication going on it sets a positive environment, a positive tone, for other things, more important things in terms of international diplomacy, but this humanitarian act is obviously a step in the right direction,” he said.

Some 7,700 American servicemembers who fought in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 remain missing. Defense officials believe about 5,300 of the missing remain in North Korea, according to DPAA, which is in charge of searches for missing troops and prisoners of war.

Mattis signaled Friday that a return to bilateral search operations with the North Koreans remains a long-term goal, and would require additional talks with the North.

On Friday, the first steps of repatriating the 55 boxes of remains were ongoing in South Korea, Mattis said.

They will be reviewed there before they are flown to Hawaii where DPAA personnel will begin forensic testing to determine whose remains they are. Mattis said other nations beside the United States, including Australia and France, also have troops missing from the Korean War. It’s possible, he said, some of the remains turned over Friday could belong to those nations.

“We don’t know one way or another,” he said. “That’s why we go through all the forensics.”

Families of missing Korean War servicemembers could assist the Pentagon in identifying the repatriated remains by providing DNA samples, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Family DNA can be used as the primary source of identifying remains, according to DPAA. The agency said it tries to obtain at least two DNA samples for every case. It has already built a database of DNA for 91 percent of Korean War missing.

Relatives are sent a DNA kit and asked to swab their inner cheek to collect cells. The samples are then mailed to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Dover, Del., where they’re kept in a database until they can be used to compare against DNA from remains.

To ask about submitting DNA samples, relatives can contact the Army's casualty office at (800) 892-2490.

The VFW also is asking families of servicemembers missing during the Cold War to submit their DNA. There are 126 missing servicemembers from 14 missions during the Cold War, including incidents that took place near North Korea. DPAA has DNA for 85 percent of Cold War missing.

“We have to do better than that,” VFW Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “Ensuring a family reference sample is on file is so important. Identifications can be made through strong circumstantial evidence, but nothing says proof-positive better than an actual DNA match.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Nikki Wentling and The Associated Press contributed to this story. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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