The 55 boxes of human remains North Korea transferred to the United States this week are “consistent” with being American service members who lost their lives in the Korean War, according to the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Location information accompanying the boxes suggested most of the remains are those of U.S. Army soldiers who fought in the famous 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Conclusions that the human remains were likely Americans from the Korean War was based on their state of preservation, as well as Korean War-era materials in some boxes that included boots, canteens, buckles, and buttons, according to Dr. John Byrd, the DPAA's chief scientist who reviewed the contents of the boxes in North Korea.
"Everything we saw was consistent with these remains, indeed, being from the Korean War, and consistent with these remains being good candidates to be missing Americans from the Korean War," said Byrd.
He said many of the recovered remains likely belonged to U.S. Army soldiers who fought in the November, 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir -- 1,024 Americans are still missing from that battle.
Byrd noted that "a lot" of the 55 boxes contained references to the village of Sinhung-ri located on the east side of the reservoir where U.S. Army soldiers fought in the battle. U.S. Marines also fought in the famous battle, but mainly along the reservoir's western side.
Byrd told Pentagon reporters Thursday that along with the remains North Korea provided the identification "dog tag" of an American servicemember, typically a metal military identification worn around the neck.
The service member's family has been notified and will receive the dog tag at a previously scheduled conference being held in Arlington, Virginia next week for Korean War and Cold War families to receive updates on their loved ones. DPAA Director Kelly McKeague told reporters that the family members had been warned that that the presence of a dog tag does not mean that the service member's remains are among the boxes.
The remains were initially transferred to United Nations control on Tuesday in Osan, South Korea before being sent to Hawaii, where Vice President Mike Pence received the 55 cases now draped in the American flag.
“There's no reason to doubt it could be Americans given the context,” Byrd said. The remains will immediately be subjected to DNA testing to see if they match DNA in the DPAA's database. The agency has DNA samples from 92 percent of the families of the nearly 7,700 Americans still missing from the Korean War.
"Where we have matches -- compelling matches with DNA, we will get a very strong lead and be able to pursue identifications quickly," said Byrd. "In other cases where we don't find compelling matches right away, it could be months or it could even be a few years before we're able to narrow down the identity."
Investigators will also use dental records and chest x-rays to further analyze the remains for a possible identification.
That process will also determine if each box contains the remains of more than one individual.
To work on the additional remains the team of DPAA researchers assigned to identifying the remains of Korean War missing will nearly double in size from five to nine.
McKeague praised the humanitarian nature of the transfer that was the outgrowth of a North Korean pledge that emerged from President Trump's June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“No caveats, no conditions set. I mean it really is a fulfillment of the pledge that Chairman Kim made to President Trump in Singapore,” he said. Despite the summit pledge McKeague said it wasn't until July 15 that North Korea notified the United Nations that it would transfer 55 boxes of remains.
The remains were formally repatriated Tuesday in Osan, South Korea to to the control of the United Nations before being transported to Hawaii, where the DPAA's identification laboratory is located. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence greeted the 55 cases, now draped in American flags, at an arrival ceremony in Hawaii
McKeague said he was "guardedly optimistic" that the repatriation would be the "first step of others to account for our missing from the Korean War."
But there are still concerns about North Korea's other agreements made at the summit, namely North Korea's commitment to denculearize.
Both McKeague and Byrd expressed hope that North Korea would allow the resumption of joint U.S.-North Korean searches of battlefields and POW camp graveyards as occurred from 1996 to 2005.
"I would go back in an instant if we were asked to," said Byrd who participated in many of the earlier search missions.