North Korea provided just one dog tag with 55 sets of war remains

North Korea provided just one dog tag with 55 sets of Korean War remains which will take U.S. scientists years to identify using DNA from relatives

  • The boxes will finally arrive back on U.S. soil 65 years after the conflict ended
  • Identifying them will be difficult and likely take years without dog tags
  • Remains will be tested for DNA matched with relatives along with other features
  • At least 5,300 U.S. soldiers are still missing in North Korea from the the war
  • Boxes were sent home after the Singapore summit of Trump and Kim Jong-un 
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When North Korea handed over 55 boxes of bones it said were remains of American war dead, it provided a just one military dog tag.

The regime provided no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities.

A U.S. defense official said it would probably take months if not years to fully identify the servicemen inside the boxes and lay them to rest.


When North Korea handed over 55 boxes of bones it said were remains of American war dead, it provided a just one military dog tag 


The regime provided no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities

The bones have not yet even been confirmed by U.S. specialists to be those of American servicemen.

The official did not know details about the single dog tag, including the name on it, or whether it was even that of an American military member. 

During the Korean War, combat troops of 16 other United Nations member countries fought alongside U.S. service members on behalf of South Korea. 

Some of them, including Australia, Belgium, France, and the Philippines, have yet to recover some of their war dead from North Korea.


A U.S. defense official said it would probably take months if not years to fully identify the servicemen inside the boxes and lay them to rest 


Forensic anthropologists from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency perform a preliminary field review of remains thought to be of U.S. soldiers

The 55 boxes were handed over at Wonsan, North Korea, last Friday and flown to Osan air base in South Korea, where U.S. officials catalogued the contents.

After a repatriation ceremony at Osan on Wednesday, the remains will be flown to Hawaii where they will begin undergoing in-depth forensic analysis.

A Defense Department laboratory will in some cases using mitochondrial DNA profiles to attempt to establish individual identifications.

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the return of the 55 boxes was a positive step but not a guarantee that the bones are American.

‘We don’t know who’s in those boxes,’ he said. He noted that some could turn out to be those of missing from other nations that fought in the Korean War. 

‘They could go to Australia,’ he said. ‘They have missing, France has missing, Americans have. There’s a whole lot of us. So, this is an international effort to bring closure for those families.’


Crew and officials from the United Nations Command and U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency secure UNC flags over transit cases of remains


UN honor guards carry the boxes containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War on the arrival from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea 

Vice President Mike Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, is scheduled to fly to Hawaii to welcome the remains back home.

The military calls it an ‘honorable carry ceremony’ marking the arrival of the remains on American soil at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Wednesday. 

Returning the remains will mark a breakthrough in a long-stalled U.S. effort to obtain war remains from North Korea.

But officials said it was unlikely to produce quick satisfaction for any of the families of the nearly 7,700 U.S. servicemen who are still listed as missing and unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea provided the 55 boxes in a delayed fulfillment of a promise its leader Kim Jong Un made to President Donald Trump at their Singapore summit on June 12.


American and South Korean soldiers welcomed the remained clothed in United Nations flags at the Osan Air Base 


As the remains were transported U.S. soldiers saluted the remains of 55 American servicemembers who were killed in the Korean War

Although the point of the summit was for Trump to press Kim on giving up his nuclear weapons, their joint statement after the meeting included a single line on an agreement to recover ‘POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.’

North Korea told U.S. officials more than once in recent years that it had about 200 sets of U.S. war remains, although none was ‘already identified.’ 

It remained unclear whether the boxes provided on July 27 include all of the bones North Korea has accumulated over the years. 

In the past, the North has provided bones that in some cases were not human or that were additional bones of U.S. servicemen already identified from previously recovered remains.


A soldier carries a casket containing a remain of a U.S. soldier who was killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea

The Pentagon estimates that of the about 7,700 U.S. MIAs from the Korean War, about 5,300 are unaccounted for on North Korean soil. 


Expectations have risen in recent weeks following the historic summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump (pictured togetjer) in Singapore earlier this month

Many were buried in shallow graves near where they fell on the battlefield; some others died in North Korean or Chinese-run prisoner of war camps.

Efforts to recover remains in North Korea have been fraught with political and other obstacles since the war ended on July 27, 1953. 

Between 1990 and 1994, North Korea unilaterally handed over 208 caskets to the U.S., which turned out to contain remains of far more than 208 soldiers, although forensics specialists so far have established 181 identities.

In addition, a series of U.S.-North Korean recovery efforts, termed ‘joint field activities,’ between 1996 and 2005 yielded 229 caskets of remains, of which 153 have been identified, according to the Pentagon.

The Trump administration, as part of the Singapore agreement, is pursuing discussions with North Korea on resuming those ‘field activities’.

The U.S. has in the past paid millions of dollars in donated vehicles, equipment, food and cash for the expeditions at the request of the North Koreans. 


A long column of American soldiers winds along the edge of a mountain road in North Korea as they move forward on the central front on July 15, 1953

The official said the U.S. was considering the possibility of including South Korea in future searches for remains in North Korea. It wasn’t not clear whether negotiations for such an arrangement are under way.

Richard Downes, whose father Air Force Lieutenant Hal Downes is among the Korean War missing, said this turnover of remains, having drawn worldwide attention, coule put the U.S. back on track to finding and eventually identifying many more.

Downes was three when his father’s B-26 Invader went down on Jan. 13, 1952, northeast of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. His family was left to wonder about his fate. 

The 70-year-old is now executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, which advocates for remains recovery.

He said he hopes the boxes arriving in Hawaii on Wednesday prove to be a vanguard that leads to a fuller accounting for families.

‘These 55 can set the stage for more to come,’ he said.

How the U.S. military will identify remains from North Korea

Where will the remains be taken?

The remains will go to a lab in Hawaii run by the military agency that identifies missing servicemen and women from past conflicts.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identifies remains from battlefields around the world. 

The agency also has a lab at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, though the remains arriving this week will be analyzed at Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The agency also sends DNA samples for analysis to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. 

Many families who are awaiting the return of their loved ones from the Korean War have already submitted DNA samples to the agency to help in the identification process.


A grave marker for an unknown soldier from the Korean War is shown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu

How will the remains be identified? 

Typically, the agency’s forensic anthropologists study any evidence found with the remains for clues, such as military uniforms, identification tags and personal items like wedding rings. 

North Korea provided only a single military dog tag with the 55 boxes.

The anthropologists also study remains to determine their sex, race, size and age. Scientists search bones for evidence of trauma caused at the time of death and for previous injuries or conditions like arthritis.

Dental experts will compare dental records, including any X-rays, with the remains.

Three-quarters of the remains the agency identifies are determined with the help of mitochondrial DNA, which is a type of DNA that’s passed from mother to child.

The lab does this by taking DNA samples from bones and teeth. The DNA lab in Delaware extracts the mitochondrial DNA from the sample to determine its genetic sequence and compares this with samples provided by relatives.

The agency uses mitochondrial DNA so often because it’s durable and each sample has a large number of copies, making it an effective way to identify bones. 

Though recent advances in DNA technology have made other types of DNA analysis possible as well.


The Honolulu Memorial Korean War Courts of the Missing memorial wall is shown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu

How many U.S. serviceman are missing from the Korean War?

About 7,700 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, and 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea. The war killed millions, including 36,000 American soldiers.

Sixteen other United Nations member countries fought alongside U.S. service members on behalf of South Korea. 

Some of them, including Australia, Belgium, France and the Philippines, have yet to recover some of their war dead from North Korea.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said some remains could turn out to be those of missing from other nations. He said this was an international effort to bring closure for families.

How long will it take?

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency spokesman Chuck Pritchard says each case will be different. Some could take several months while others could take years.

 

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