Identifying remains of US soldiers will be challenging: Experts

North Korean soldiers carrying a coffin believed to contain the remains of a US soldier to the border with South Korea in 1998. The US is preparing to receive more remains of troops missing in action during the Korean War in coming days.
North Korean soldiers carrying a coffin believed to contain the remains of a US soldier to the border with South Korea in 1998. The US is preparing to receive more remains of troops missing in action during the Korean War in coming days.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The United States military will face a difficult task in identifying the remains of soldiers missing in action during the Korean War as the Pentagon prepares to receive them from North Korea in coming days, officials and experts said.

US President Donald Trump, who met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an historic summit in Singapore this month, said last Thursday that Pyongyang was in the process of returning the remains of US troops missing in action during the 1950-1953 conflict.

Yesterday, the US military began moving caskets to the North for the recovery of some remains, the United Nations Command in South Korea said in a statement.

The Pentagon has said North Korean officials have indicated in the past they have the remains of as many as 200 US troops.

US officials expect the remains to be handed over to UN Command in South Korea at Osan Air Base near Seoul, then transferred to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

Once in Hawaii, forensic experts will face the challenge of identifying the remains. Among the techniques they could use are detective work with old photos, comparing DNA from remains to that of missing soldiers' relatives and analysis of dental work.

A US official familiar with the process said the remains could be co-mingled - meaning not separated by individual - and could include people who were not American. The official said it could take months and even years to identify the remains.

Remains that North Korea has handed over in the past have not always been identifiable as US troops, despite the dog tags North Korea handed over with them, according to a 1994 Rand Corporation research report.

Between 1990 and 1992, North Korea returned 46 sets of remains, according to the report.

"With no exception, every North Korean claim associated with human remains has shown to be false. For example, these 46 sets are actually fragments of more than 70 individuals," the report said. Forensic analyses suggested none were American, the report said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Identifying remains of US soldiers will be challenging: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe