Hunt for US' Korean War dead to take time

North Korea may allow the US to resume a search for thousands of American war dead from the 1950-53 Korean War, but officials say it will be months before excavations can begin, and years until remains are identified.
US Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency Kelly McKeague, whose agency tracks down and repatriates remains of US soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, on July 9, 2018.
US Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency Kelly McKeague, whose agency tracks down and repatriates remains of US soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, on July 9, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Months before digging can start and years before identification

TOKYO • North Korea may allow the United States to resume a search for thousands of American war dead from the 1950-53 Korean War, but it will be months before excavations can begin and years until bone fragments are identified, a senior US official said.

''It takes anywhere from a few months to, in many cases, years, before we can make an identification,'' Mr Kelly McKeague, head of the US agency that tracks down remains of US soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, said in an interview.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed at a June 12 summit with US President Donald Trump to allow the recovery and repatriation of US remains to resume.

After the summit, Mr Trump said Pyongyang had already ''sent back'' the remains of 200 US troops. Mr McKeague said no new remains had been returned since then.

''We have yet to see any specifics from that commitment,'' said Mr McKeague, director of the US Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The process could get a kick-start when North Korean and United Nations officials meet today in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the Koreas to discuss service members missing in action. DPAA advisers will attend the talks.

The last return of US remains between 1990 and 1995 involved just over 200 caskets. US investigators collected a further 230 boxes of bones and material in a decade of digging.

DPAA investigators face a narrow weather window in North Korea, where the ground is soft enough for digging from mid-March to late- September, and rains can stop work in June and August.

The last return of US remains between 1990 and 1995 involved just over 200 caskets. US investigators collected a further 230 boxes of bones and material in a decade of digging.

Using DNA testing, they have identified 630 individuals, of which 330 were matched to missing service members, said Dr John Byrd, the agency's director of scientific analysis. Each person receives a military funeral with full honours.

Dr Byrd, a forensic anthropologist, was part of a 15-strong DPAA team in North Korea 20 years ago. They went to battle sites such as the Chosin Reservoir, where outnumbered US marine and army units fought a retreat through overwhelming numbers of Chinese forces in a bitter winter.

Guarded by North Korean soldiers, they were careful to avoid arguments that could halt their work, Dr Byrd said. ''We made sure we only brought in really mature experienced people,'' he said.

The remains of a South Korean service member identified from that operation will be returned in Seoul tomorrow. About 350,000 South Koreans are still missing. Some 7,700 Americans are unaccounted for, with 5,300 believed to be somewhere north of the DMZ.

Detailed historical records allow investigators to locate battlefields, prisoner-of-war camps and aircraft crash sites.

The Korean peninsula's colder climate limits digging time, but helps to preserve remains, unlike tropical areas of Asia, where bones rot quickly, Mr McKeague said.

The agency has built up a DNA database from relatives that covers 92 per cent of the Korean War missing, versus 85 per cent for the Vietnam War and 3 per cent for World War II.

The North's lack of economic development since the war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meant it built fewer roads, dams and buildings to disturb or cover remains.

South Korea's urbanisation is one reason why more than a 1,000 US service members are unaccounted for, said Mr McKeague.

If the agency does return to North Korea, he said, cooperation will be key.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline 'Hunt for US' Korean War dead to take time'. Print Edition | Subscribe