“This is a great first step in terms of bringing a bunch of fallen Americans home,” said Rear Admiral Jon Kreitz, the deputy director of the agency in charge of identifying the remains, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
“We look forward to potentially pursuing (remains recovery) operations in North Korea in the future and we’re very hopeful. Again, this is just a great first step in building some confidence and building a relationship.”
The remains are being repatriated as part of a historic agreement last month between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Preliminary testing revealed the remains appear to be those of Korean War combatants, and were likely American, according to John Byrd, an anthropologist at the DPAA.
He called it one of the “largest unilateral turnovers” of remains ever received from North Korea.
“The remains are consistent with remains that we have recovered in North Korea through our own recovery efforts in the past,” said Byrd.
“There’s no reason at this point to doubt that they do relate to Korean War losses.”
However, Byrd cautioned that it was unclear if that veteran’s remains are among those returned.
North Korean army officials who returned the remains expressed concern about bones being mixed up, said Byrd. He told CNN after the press conference it’s likely there will be more than 55 individuals in the 55 boxes being sent to Hawaii.
Byrd also confirmed that none of the remains included animal bones, which he said can easily happen by accident.
Angela Kerwin, the consul general US Embassy in Seoul, said no payment was made to the North Koreans for the remains.
A final ceremony
The 55 cases, each emblazoned with the blue flag of the United Nations, were put on display in a cavernous hanger inside Osan Air Base for where they were honored with a repatriation ceremony.
The US led the United Nations Command that fought on South Korea’s side during the Korean War.
Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of US Forces in Korea, spoke briefly before foreign dignitaries laid wreaths to honor those being repatriated.
Brooks called the ceremony “a solemn reminder that our work is not complete until all have been accounted for, no matter how long it takes to do so.”
“For the warrior, this is a cherished duty. A commitment made to one another before going into battle, and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next,” Brooks said.
The cases were then transported by van to the tarmac. Four F-16s then conducted flyover in what is known as a “missing man” formation, and then the remains were loaded onto a plan en route for Hawaii.
The remains will be greeted by US Vice President Mike Pence as they touch down on US soil.
Joining the vice president are the children of two US service members who never returned from the Korean War. Pence is also the child of a Korean War veteran. His father, Edward J. Pence, Jr., received a Bronze Star for his service.
According to the US Department of Defense, 7,697 personnel from the Korean conflict are still unaccounted for, of whom 5,300 are believed to be North of the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.
Analysts consider the issue to be low-hanging fruit for Pyongyang and Washington negotiators — something that both sides could easily agree to in order to establish a modicum of trust and good will as they continue to negotiate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Critics say Trump and Kim’s agreement fell woefully short on specifics when it comes to Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, but Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have preached patience.