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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Plans to search the Demilitarized Zone for Korean War-era remains could uncover Americans who perished on the border with North Korea, officials said Friday.

The South Korean army could start digging in the DMZ as early as next year, but operations more likely will begin a few years later, said Lt. Col. Song Bong-jun of the National Ministry of Defense’s remains recovery office.

It’s “very possible” the teams could come across remains of U.S. soldiers, Song said. But Song said South Korea does not hold any data regarding Americans who may have died in what is now the DMZ. If casualty data was shared, it might aid in locating missing soldiers.

The remains of 89 Americans are believed to be in the 2.5-mile-wide zone that stretches across Korea’s middle, according to the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. The South Korean army has slotted $2.6 million to fund remains recovery projects in South Korea with plans to eventually do operations in North Korea.

About 8,100 Americans are unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war, and about 5,500 of those are in North Korea, the Pentagon has said.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, formerly the Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii, has worked with South Korea before on recoveries, said spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara.

The command conducts operations in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and other countries to recover missing GIs and identify their remains through DNA analysis.

From 2000 to 2002, South Korean recovery teams recovered five sets of remains and turned those over to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, Song said. No American remains were found in 2003.

Since 1996, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has conducted 27 operations in North Korea. About 180 remains have been recovered and repatriated, and more missions are scheduled for next year.

South Korea is rife with artifacts from the war. Occasionally, construction workers dig up live ordnance. Remains also turn up, such as a femur bone found recently at Camp Casey, officials said.

In July 2001, a farmer found a boot sticking out of the ground after heavy rains. Parts of a parachute and dog tags were found that matched a servicemember on an aircraft that went down there in the last months of the war.

The remains — believed to be those of a U.S. Marine — were given an honor guard salute before they were shipped to Hawaii.

— Choe Song-won contributed to this report.

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