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Remains from North Korea in moderate to poor condition, could take years to identify

An honor guard detail of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) personnel conducts an honorable carry ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPH-H), Hawaii, Aug. 1, 2018. Carry teams will move 55 flag-draped transfer cases, containing what are believed to be the remains of American service members lost in the Korean War, to the DPAA laboratory at JBPH-H for identification. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mikaley Kline)

It will take scientists months to determine how many sets of Korean War remains were in 55 boxes handed over by North Korea, officials with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said Tuesday at the White House.

DPAA Director Kelly McKeague and John Byrd, director of scientific analysis for the agency, also said the remains were in “moderate to poor” condition.

“There is a scientific process to estimate that,” Byrd said about the number of remains included in the boxes. “I wish it were very fast, because I think a lot of people would like to know. The families would love to know that information, but unfortunately it’s going to take months.”

McKeague said he had “high confidence” at least some of the remains are U.S. servicemembers. About 7,700 American troops who fought in the war remain missing.

The remains were transferred in July as the result of an agreement reached June 12 between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when they met in Singapore. They are already undergoing a “painstaking, multifaceted” analysis at DPAA’s lab in Hawaii, McKeague said. In coming weeks, Timothy McMahon, the Pentagon DNA operations director, and his team in Delaware will use samples from the remains against a DNA database to compare with other remains recovered from North Korea, as well as DNA samples provided by family members.

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“The mettle of our scientists and the capabilities of our labs will be challenged, but in the months and years ahead, they will make identifications from these remains and give families long-sought answers,” McKeague said.

Byrd previously confirmed the remains were human. Once the remains were transported to Osan Air Base in South Korea, DPAA spent two days going through the boxes looking for animal bones, but didn’t find any, he said. In at least one case previously, remains were found to be co-mingled with animal remains.

Scientists must also work to discern American remains from the remains of people from other countries.

Though some of the remains are in poor condition, Byrd said he was confident his lab could identify them in the coming months “and maybe the next several years.”

“We would characterize the preservation of the remains as moderate to poor. However, what our lab specializes in is making identifications in circumstances where you have very little to work with,” he said.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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