JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII – The U.S. military is close to identifying the first two American troops from the 55 boxes of human remains from the 1950-53 Korean War that were handed over by North Korea in July, U.S. officials leading the forensic analysis said on Monday.
“The IDs will be made officially in the next couple of days,” said John Byrd, the director of scientific analysis at the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The families of the dead would be notified first, he said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has hailed the handover of the remains as evidence of the success of his summit with North Koran leader Kim Jong Un in June. The White House said on Monday it was looking at scheduling a second meeting.
Critics, however, say the summit has so far failed to deliver on promised steps to get Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
The latest identifications will chip away at the 7,699 U.S. troops who the U.S. military says remain unaccounted for from the Korean War. About 5,300 were lost in what is now North Korea.
A small group of journalists was given access on Monday to a secure facility on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where forensic anthropologists are combing through the remains handed over by Pyongyang in July.
Byrd and his colleague Jennie Jin, who leads the agency’s Korean War Project, spent more than an hour explaining the painstaking process of identifying the remains, which include methods for finding DNA in bone fragments.
Some bone fragments from the batch handed over in July are as small as a quarter. Others bones have decayed to the point where they are not much longer than a pencil.
However, the sets of bones from the two soon-to-be-identified American troops are far more complete.
Both came from the same 1950 battlegrounds near the Chongchon River in what is present-day North Korea. U.S. troops suffered heavy casualties there against Chinese forces.
“It’s a huge battle,” said Jin, who estimated that 1,700 of the missing U.S. forces from the Korean War came from that fight alone.
She spoke above tables of bone fragments, still separated with numbers corresponding with 55 boxes used by North Korea to deliver them to the United States.
Other tables included personal objects from soldiers that don’t have any identification on them, including buttons, canteens and old boots.
Byrd acknowledged that it could take months for the next round of identifications.
“There could be some more and maybe right after Christmas,” Byrd said, acknowledging there were many variables that could alter the timing.
Jin, a South Korean-born American citizen, said the work has a personal connection. Her grandfather, now 90, is a survivor of the war who came from one of the areas of present-day North Korea that saw some of the heaviest fighting. He was evacuated south on a U.S. Navy ship, she said.
“It’s really personal to me,” Jin said.
The July transfer coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended fighting between North Korean and Chinese forces and South Korean and U.S.-led forces under the U.N. Command.
The two sides remain technically at war because a peace treaty was never signed.
The United States and North Korea conducted joint searches for remains from 1996 until 2005, when Washington halted the operations citing concerns about the safety of its personnel as Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear program.
The Pentagon has said it is considering the possibility of sending personnel to North Korea to search for more remains.