- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2018

The painstaking work to identify the remains of American service members killed during the Korean War and repatriated to the U.S. may take years, Defense Department officials said Thursday.

American officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conducted a cursory inspection of the 55 boxes of remains that North Korean officials sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea late last month. During that inspection, U.S. officials confirmed that human remains were in the boxes, agency Director Kelly McKeague said Thursday.

The 55 boxes, which were the most handed over by North Korea to the U.S., arrived Wednesday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. It was a “high-water mark” in U.S. efforts that initially began in the 1990s to bring American casualties home from North Korea, Mr. McKeague said.

“Whosoever emerges from these aircraft today begins a new season of hope for the families of our missing fallen,” Vice President Mike Pence said during Wednesday’s welcoming ceremony in Hawaii. “Hope that those who are lost will yet be found. Hope that after so many years of questions, they will have closure.”

But the work to identify the remains of soldiers and Marines — using DNA databases, dental records and other medical documentation — could take years, the agency’s chief scientist John Byrd told reporters at the Pentagon during Thursday’s briefing.

“It is not a linear process,” Mr. Byrd said, noting that the agency also is working to identify remains from World War II through Vietnam. “It could be done in a week or five years.”

Each box came with a brief paragraph, written in Korean, explaining its contents. Agency officials are translating the paragraphs in the hopes of gleaning additional information.

Mr. McKeague said a pair of relatives of a U.S. service member, named on a military-issue ID tag included in the delivered remains, were notified. He declined to comment on the individual’s identity or military unit. Agency officials have yet to determine whether the owner of the identification tag is among the remains, he said.

Most of the remains were collected near the North Korean village of Sin Hung-ri on the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir, where Army and Marine Corps units battled Chinese and North Korean forces. More than 7,500 soldiers and Marines died in the Battle of Chosin, with just over 2,800 South Korean troops killed in the fight.

The handover of the remains was a key agreement from June’s historic summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Doubts over whether Pyongyang would follow thorough began to surface in the days and weeks following the summit. Pyongyang had kept U.S. counterparts in limbo over when the remains would begin their trek to America, at one point failing to appear at a scheduled meeting to discuss the handover with an American delegation in South Korea.

But North Korean officials “were very forthcoming and candid with us” once American recovery teams hit the ground inside the country, Mr. McKeague said.

Given the success of the handover, Mr. McKeague said he is confident Pyongyang would support future U.S. missions into North Korea to retrieve the remains of the 5,300 service members missing or killed in action.

U.S. military recovery do not wear uniforms, are unarmed and depend wholly on the North Korean military for security, Mr. McKeague said.

“This is a humanitarian endeavor,” he said, adding that getting the North to agree to future missions would be part of the “normalization process” and show initiative by North Korea to become part of the international community.

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