When North Korea handed over 55 boxes of bones that it said are remains of American war dead, it provided a single military dog tag but no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities, a U.S. defense official said Tuesday.
The official, who discussed previously undisclosed aspects of the remains issue on condition of anonymity, said it probably will take months if not years to fully determine individual identities from the remains, which have not yet been confirmed by U.S. specialists to be those of American servicemen.
The official did not know details about the single dog tag, including the name on it, or whether it was even that of an American military member. During the Korean War, combat troops of 16 other United Nations member countries fought alongside U.S. service members on behalf of South Korea. Some of them, including Australia, Belgium, France and the Philippines, have yet to recover some of their war dead from North Korea.
The 55 boxes were handed over at Wonsan, North Korea last Friday and flown aboard a U.S. military transport plane to Osan air base in South Korea, where U.S. officials catalogued the contents. After a repatriation ceremony at Osan on Wednesday, the remains will be flown to Hawaii where they will begin undergoing in-depth forensic analysis at a Defense Department laboratory to attempt to establish individual identifications.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the return of the 55 boxes was a positive step but not a guarantee that the bones are American.
"We don't know who's in those boxes," he said. He noted that some could turn out to be those of missing from other nations that fought in the Korean War. "They could go to Australia," he said. "They have missing, France has missing, Americans have. There's a whole lot of us. So, this is an international effort to bring closure for those families."
Vice President Mike Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, is scheduled to fly to Hawaii for a ceremony, which the military calls an "honorable carry ceremony," marking the arrival of the remains on American soil at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Wednesday. This will mark a breakthrough in a long-stalled U.S. effort to obtain war remains from North Korea, but officials say it is unlikely to produce quick satisfaction for any of the families of the nearly 7,700 U.S. servicemen who are still listed as missing and unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War.