North Korea provided just 1 dog tag with 55 sets of war remains

When North Korea handed over 55 boxes of bones that it said are remains of American war dead, it provided a single military dog tag but no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities, a U.S. defence official says.

Official says it could take months, or even years, to determine individual identities of U.S. soldiers

During a return ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeontaek, South Korea, on Friday, UN Honor Guards carry boxes believed to contain the remains of U.S. service personnel killed during the Korean War. (Staff Sgt. Quince Lanford/U.S. Army/Associated Press)

When North Korea handed over 55 boxes of bones that it said are remains of American war dead, it provided a single military dog tag but no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities, a U.S. defence official said Tuesday.

The official, who discussed previously undisclosed aspects of the remains issue on condition of anonymity, said it probably will take months — if not years — to fully determine individual identities from the remains, which have not yet been confirmed by U.S. specialists to be those of American service personnel.

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

Honor Guards inspect caskets containing remains. North Korea handed over 55 boxes of remains last week as part of an agreement reached during a June summit between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and U.S. President Donald Trump. (Jung Yeon-je/Associated Press)

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.

Forensic analysis in Hawaii

The 55 boxes were handed over at Wonsan, North Korea, last Friday and flown aboard a U.S. military transport plane to Osan airbase 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, in some cases using mitochondrial DNA profiles, at a Defence Department laboratory to attempt to establish individual identifications.

We don't know who's in those boxes …  this is an international effort to bring closure for those families.- Jim Mattis, U.S. defence secretary

Defence 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 missing individuals 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."

John Byrd, director of scientific analysis at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), right, and Canadian Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, deputy commander of the United Nations Command, at a repatriation ceremony. An official said it could take months or years to identify the remains. (Jung Yeon-je/Associated Press)

Vice-President Mike Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, is scheduled to fly to Hawaii for a ceremony, which the military calls an "honourable carry ceremony," marking the arrival of the remains on American soil at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Wednesday.

7,700 still missing

This will mark a breakthrough in a long-stalled U.S. effort to obtain war remains from North Korea, but officials say it is unlikely to produce quick satisfaction for any of the families of the nearly 7,700 U.S. service personnel still listed as missing and unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea provided the 55 boxes in a delayed fulfilment of a commitment its leader, Kim Jong-un, made to U.S. President Donald Trump at their Singapore summit on June 12. 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 had 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 remains unclear whether the boxes provided on July 27 include all 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 were additional bones of U.S. service staff already identified from previously recovered remains.

U.S. army Col. Sam Lee, UN Command chaplain, performs a blessing of sacrifice and remembrance on the 55 cases of remains. (Staff Sgt. Quince Lanford/U.S. Army/Associated Press)

The Pentagon estimates that of the approximately 7,700 U.S. missing in action from the Korean War, about 5,300 are unaccounted for on North Korean soil. Many were buried in shallow graves near where they fell on the battlefield; 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 individuals, although forensics specialists thus far have established 181 identities.

Possible resumption of search

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," for which past administrations have paid millions of dollars in donated vehicles, equipment, food and cash at the request of the North Koreans. The U.S. official who discussed aspects of the return of the 55 boxes on condition of anonymity said the U.S. is considering the possibility of including South Korea in future searches for remains in North Korea. It's not clear whether negotiations for such an arrangement are underway.

These 55 can set the stage for more to come,- Richard Downes, Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs

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

Downes, 70, was 3½ when his father's B-26 Invader went down on Jan. 13, 1952, northeast of Pyongyang. His family was left to wonder about his fate. Downes, now executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, which advocates for remains recovery, said he hopes the boxes that arrive 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."