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War dead remains from N. Korea ‘likely to be American,’ DPAA official says

A multinational honor guard unloads a casket from a van at Osan Air Base, South Korea. The casket was headed to Hawaii on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 31, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — Remains handed over by North Korea last week are human and likely American, according to an official with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Dr. John Byrd, director of scientific analysis for DPAA, told reporters Wednesday at Osan that the agency has completed a two-day field forensic review and determined that the remains are human and “are likely to be American remains.”

He also confirmed a single military dog tag was provided with the remains and that the family of that soldier has been notified.

“Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily the case that” the person identified in the dog tag will be among the remains but they’re hopeful, he said.

Byrd said they believe they’re American because “there was a lot of military hardware, helmets, canteens ... the same kinds of things that we find when we excavate” such sites in South and North Korea.

North Korea allowed the United States to send a cargo plane to collect the remains and fly them to Osan on Friday, partially fulfilling a promise its leader, Kim Jong Un, made during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump.

The U.S.-led United Nations Command planned a formal repatriation ceremony Wednesday at Osan, where the remains have been examined and catalogued by DPAA.

Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of the UNC and U.S. Forces Korea, and Rear Adm. Jon Kreitz, deputy director of the DPAA, will preside over a ceremony before the remains are flown to Hawaii for further analysis at the DPAA laboratory.

Vice President Mike Pence, whose father fought in the Korean War, was scheduled to attend an “honorable carry ceremony” at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to mark the arrival of the remains on U.S. soil.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has welcomed the return of the 55 boxes but acknowledged it’s not certain who is inside.

Past remains have been found to be co-mingled and in at least one case contained animal bones. The DPAA has what it calls family reference samples, including DNA, for more than 90 percent of the missing servicemembers.

"We don't know who's in those boxes," Mattis said last week, noting Australia and other countries also are missing troops.

“There's a whole lot of us. So, this is an international effort to bring closure for those families,” he said.

Sixteen other countries sent troops to fight in the 1950-53 Korean War under the U.N. umbrella, and several of them also are believed to have been lost in the North.

"The Korean War fallen have never been forgotten by the United States of America nor the 16 other sending states that comprise the UNC. UNC never leaves troops behind, living or deceased, and will continue the mission of repatriation until every service member returns home," the command said in a statement.

"UNC is taking great responsibility to ensure remains from the Korean War are being handled with dignity and are properly accounted for so their families may receive them in an honorable manner," it added.

The remains will undergo a lengthy forensics process at the military lab, which is staffed by more than 30 anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic odontologists.

U.S. officials also are eager to resume searches in North Korea for more remains, an effort that has been stalled for more than a decade due to rising nuclear tensions.

More than 7,600 American servicemembers remain missing from the three-year war, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

Some 5,300 of those are believed to have been lost in North Korea, which is separated from the South by one of the world’s most fortified borders.

"Just over 1,000 men are unrecovered" from the so-called Demilitarized Zone and nearby buffer zones, according to DPAA.

The Trump administration has hailed the repatriation as a significant goodwill gesture even as efforts toward persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons have faltered.

Kim Jong Un committed to try to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during the summit in Singapore, but he agreed to no specific measures or timelines.
Officials say U.S. spy agencies, citing evidence including recent satellite photos, have spotted signs that the North is building new intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Washington Post.

That was the latest in a series of reports casting doubt on whether the communist state is truly committed to abandoning its hard-won nuclear weapons.

The North demonstrated sharp progress in its program last year when it test-fired numerous missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

But tensions have ebbed as diplomatic efforts advanced and Kim announced his country would suspend long-range missile and nuclear tests. Experts have noted he did not promise to stop development.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

Remains recently handed over by North Korea are seen before a ceremony at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.
KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

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