The Pentagon notified the family of a U.S. service member missing since the Korean War that his dog tags were among the human remains recently turned over by North Korea, officials said Thursday.
The dog tags are the first sign that the 55 boxes of bones and other effects delivered last week by North Korea may contain the remains of U.S. service members, potentially bringing closure to families who have waited decades to know what happened to relatives who fought in the war.
But Pentagon officials said that the painstaking process of identifying the remains is just beginning and could take months or in some cases years, as forensic scientists seek to match the remains with DNA samples, dental records and other identifying data.
“Where we have matches, compelling matches with DNA, we will get a very strong lead and be able to pursue identifications quickly,” Dr. John Byrd, chief scientist of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “In other cases it could be months or even years before we’re able to narrow down the identity.”
North Korea’s handover of the remains is the only tangible result so far from the June summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump thanked Kim for the remains on Thursday.
“Thank you to Chairman Kim Jong Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and beloved missing fallen! I am not at all surprised that you took this kind action,” Trump said in a tweet.
Some 7,699 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, a three-year conflict that took the lives of more than 36,000 American troops. The Pentagon believes that approximately 5,300 of the missing Americans were lost in North Korea.
It remains unclear whether all of the remains received are those of U.S. service members or how many sets of human remains are contained in the boxes because some of the skeletons are not well preserved and show signs of being commingled, Byrd said.
He declined to identify the name on the dog tag — only one of which was turned over by North Korea — and said it was unknown whether the remains of that service member were contained in the boxes.
Some of the remains, which were flown from South Korea to Hawaii this week, came with what appeared to be old U.S. equipment, such as bits of uniforms, canteens, boots and other gear from the Korean War era.
Each box was marked with identifying information, including where the remains were found. Several of the boxes were said to contain remains from around the village of Sin Hung-Ri, which is near Chosin Reservoir, in northeastern North Korea, where U.S. Marines and Army soldiers fought a brutal battle in 1950.
From a preliminary examination of the bones, many appear to have characteristics of European and African ancestry — suggesting that they were Americans, Byrd said.
“All of the remains appear to be American,” he said. “In some cases there are complete bones that in size and shape, I feel confident, are quite likely to be American,” while others are “badly preserved” and “could be American.”
Some of the remains could also be of soldiers from other countries who sent troops to fight in Korea, including Australia and Britain, though the number of unaccounted-for soldiers from allied countries is far smaller than from the U.S.
When remains are identified, it is likely to be a result in most cases of DNA analysis and examination of dental records or chest X-rays, experts said. But the success of those methods depends on the accuracy and completeness of records that are in some cases decades old.
DNA samples will be taken and quickly compared to a database of DNA from family members of missing service members, Byrd said.
“We’re going to begin DNA samples immediately. Any teeth will be immediately looked at,” along with bones that might show up on chest X-rays that were done routinely for recruits during that era, Byrd said.
Unlike today’s soldiers, DNA samples weren’t taken for service members who fought in Korea because the capability didn’t exist. But family members have provided DNA samples to the Defense Department for 92% of the unaccounted-for soldiers from Korea.
The most common way the Pentagon identifies remains is by mitochondrial DNA, which is found in teeth or bones, and is identical to DNA from a mother, siblings and any other maternally related family members. But it also will conduct other forms of DNA testing, Byrd said, if initial tests do not produce a possible match.
But DNA can degrade over time. If remains are commingled, as has occurred in the past with remains from North Korea, identification may be slowed substantially or impossible.
Dental records are far less complete and definitive, officials said.
Investigators will be working without other usual forensic information, such as burial location, making it harder to link remains to U.S. units known to have taken casualties in particular places.
Many U.S. casualties in North Korea were buried by comrades where they died. Thousands of soldiers were transported to prisoner-of-war camps, where they faced starvation, exposure and torture.
The remains will be examined initially at the agency’s laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, one of the largest forensic facilities in the world. The DNA analysis will be done at a Pentagon laboratory in Delaware.
The last time North Korea turned over remains to the U.S. was in 2007, when six boxes were turned over. From 1990 to 1994, 208 other containers of remains were handed over. The Pentagon has identified 80% of those remains, Byrd said.