North Korea Remains Returned

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, Pool

North Korea Returns Possible Remains Of 55 Soldiers From Korean War

July 27, 2018 - 7:03 pm
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PYEONGTAEK, South Korea (WCBS 880/AP) -- On the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, North Korea has returned the possible remains of 55 soldiers from that war.

CBS News Correspondent Bill Rehkopf said the word “possible” is being used because the remains still have to be validated.

“They want to do some verification on the remains to make sure they are what North Korea says they are. Once that’s been done – and they think that will take a couple of days – then the process repatriation will begin. The caskets will be sent to Hawaii, where Vice President Pence has said he will personally greet them,” Rehkopf told WCBS 880’s Joe Avellar and Michael Wallace.

Identifications depend on combining multiple lines of evidence, and they can take time: Even after decades, some cases remain unresolved.

Dog tags found with the remains can help, and even scraps of clothing can be traced to the material used in uniforms. Teeth can be matched with dental records. Bones can be used to estimate height. And the distinctive shape of a clavicle bone can be matched to records of X-rays taken decades ago to look for tuberculosis, said Charles Prichard, a spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

If a DNA analysis is called for, samples are sent to a military DNA lab at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Tiny samples of bone or teeth, no bigger than the amount of bone in the last joint of the pinkie finger, are enough to yield usable DNA, said Timothy McMahon, who oversees the Dover lab as director of Defense Department DNA Operations.

Each sample is sanded to remove surface contamination, ground to the consistency of baby powder, and then treated with a substance that dissolves the bone and leaves the DNA for analysis. That DNA is then compared with genetic samples from living people who are related to the missing.

The military has been collecting DNA from such family members since 1992, and has reached the relatives of 92 percent of the 8,100 service members who were listed as missing at the end of the Korean War, McMahon said.

The goal is to find bits of DNA in common between the known relatives and the unidentified remains, suggesting both belong to a particular lineage. One analysis develops a profile that combines what's found at 23 spots in the DNA, for example.

By analyzing different kinds of DNA, lab scientists can look for markers passed down by generations of women, or of men, or of both sexes. The lab once linked remains to a great-great-great-great-grandniece who initially had no idea she was related to the missing service member, McMahon said.

Once a link is made, the lab estimates how strongly it suggests the remains belong to a particular person, and send the results back to Hawaii. There, it's combined with the other lines of evidence.

"We're just one spoke in a wheel to make the identification," McMahon said. "We all work together."

Since Oct. 1, the Hawaii lab has identified 25 service members from the Korean War, part of the 119 identifications made overall in that time period, Prichard said. For the 12 months before that, 42 sets of remains from the Korean War were accounted for, which includes briefing the relatives in person, out of 183 overall.

The agency identifies remains from not only the Korean War, but also World War II through the first Gulf War in Iraq.

As to the remains themselves, it is not clear where in North Korea they were kept up until now.

“They were being kept somewhere in North Korea. We haven’t been given any specific location or museum, morgue, what have you, but they have been there for quite some time. And this has been a struggle for families over the years who have demanded the returns of the missing in action, and by no means does anybody think this accounts for all of them,” Rehkopf said. “This may just be a percentage of what is there.”

But the Trump administration is still expressing gratitude to North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un for fulfilling a promise made at his Singapore summit with President Donald Trump.

But with the remains of thousands of soldiers still in North Korea, some families and organizations are cynical about the actions.

“A group calling themselves the Coalition of Families of the Korean War POW and MIAs representative, telling the Washington Post said that, you know, there’s a mixture of hope and cynicism because they say while they’re glad to see these remains coming home, they also know that these guys, in their words, were being used as a negotiating tool with North Korea,” Rehkopf said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)