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First two IDs of remains turned over by North Korea expected within weeks

Caskets holding remains believed to be of American troops killed in the Korean War are lined up inside a hangar at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.

KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 10, 2018

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — In coming weeks, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is expected to announce the first two identifications from 55 sets of remains turned over by North Korea following a historic June summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

It’s the start of a new identification timeline for the agency’s Hickam-based lab, on top of a record number of IDs already being made.

Formal identification is near for one servicemember from the North Korean handover — a 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 slim and young African-American whose skeletal physical characteristics, combined with modern science, led to putting a name with the now more than 65-year-old bones, according to officials.

“There are far fewer African-Americans missing than white (personnel from the Korean War),” said John Byrd, director of the accounting agency’s lab on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

“Then if you add height to the mix, he’s a lot taller than average,” Byrd said.

The average height for American soldiers missing from the Korean War was 5-foot-9. “Just those two things by themselves allowed us to narrow a list down very quickly,” Byrd said.

Comparisons of teeth to dental records and the use of past-service chest X-rays helped identify the remains, which in turn will mean two more families can have closure with formerly missing loved ones.

A DNA match was confirmed for the tall service member. The final results are still being reviewed by military medical experts.

Earth-brown and gray bones from the Korean War — including the much-longer-than-usual 22-inch femur of the African-American soldier — fill the approximately 60 tables in the Hickam facility’s biggest lab space.

Also sitting on the tables are pieces of leather boots, mess kit items, canteens, a pitted steel helmet, buttons, the hilt of a Ka-Bar-like knife, and other items returned recently from North Korea with the remains.

Defense Department policy now precludes taking photos of the unidentified war dead, officials said.

Also at the lab with the degraded remains from North Korea are the mostly complete skeletons that were buried as “unknowns” at Punchbowl cemetery and exhumed for identification.

Remains that were turned over or recovered from North Korea from 1990 to 2005 have been analyzed and are in boxes with hopes of an identification match.

“We have a much larger number of Punchbowl unknowns that have come into the lab,” Byrd said during an interview at the facility. “And now we’ve got the 55 boxes from North Korea. The volume of work from the Korean War has gone up by a few orders of magnitude in the last year.”

Over the next several years, the accounting agency plans to disinter all of the remaining approximately 630 Korean War unknowns still buried at Punchbowl, he said.

Another lab room has skeletal remains from the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. Down the hall are Punchbowl recoveries of unknowns from the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on the USS West Virginia and USS California.

“I think the lab is pretty much full,” Byrd said, adding that lab expansion space is being set up on Pearl Harbor for American victims from the World War II POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines.

Lab personnel have increased from about 100 in 2016 to 120 now, with 24 more expected in the 2020 timeframe, Byrd said.

Identifications also have risen from 164 in 2016 to 201 in 2017, with some number higher than that expected this fiscal year, he said. Up to 35,000 Americans missing from past wars are believed to be recoverable.

“We know that we have to step up our pace beyond where we are today to really give those families some hope that we’re going to be able to resolve those cases,” Byrd said.

To make identifications from the recent North Korean turnover — known as “K-55” — lab scientists are taking physiological measurements and using dental and chest X-ray records, along with DNA and even isotope testing.

Light isotopes the lab is looking at include carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, which can help identify diet and where an individual lived, Byrd said.

“One of the first things we’re going to get out of this is we’re going to try to flag and identify which (remains) are likely foreign nationals vs. which ones are likely Americans,” he said.

Remaining identifications likely will not be as easy as the first two, with Byrd estimating most of the cases will be resolved within five years.

In the meantime, the accounting agency is hoping to go back to North Korea to make its own recoveries — something it did from 1996 to 2005, conducting 33 missions and recovering more than 220 sets of remains.

Officials have talked about the spring, but say no agreement is in place with the North.

Kelly McKeague, accounting agency’s director, said at a White House briefing last month that he is “guardedly optimistic” the recent repatriation will be followed by others.

“We are in the midst of exploring next steps as well as discussions with the Korean People’s Army for the express purpose of resuming joint field operations,” McKeague said.

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