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Possible Remains Of U.S. Servicemen Lost During Korean War Arrive In Hawaii

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A plane carrying 55 cases from North Korea arrives in Hawaii today reportedly containing the remains of American service members lost in the Korean War. But it may be some time before U.S. military officials can determine individual identities from the remains. It hasn't even been confirmed yet whether the boxes do contain remains of Americans. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency or DPAA is the Department of Defense agency in charge of recovering personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.

Kristen Duus is a spokeswoman for the DPAA and joins us now. Welcome.

KRISTEN DUUS: Hello.

CHANG: So can you just first walk us through the process of how the DPAA plans to identify all these remains?

DUUS: Absolutely. Our first step is once we get the remains into our laboratory, we have to inventory all of the remains. So once we find out what remains that we have, then we begin the identification process. Sometimes identifications can be made in a matter of a couple of days depending on what kind of antemortem records we may have for the service members individually. Some identifications can take up to years to complete because we're trying to piece together information if we don't have that readily available for us.

CHANG: I mean, these remains are decades old. Can you talk about what conditions would make it even more challenging to identify some of these remains?

DUUS: Yeah, absolutely. Each case is obviously going to be different. It depends on what the condition of - these remains are in. Some remains are more severely degraded based off of the soil that they could have been buried in or if they were left exposed to the elements or if they were buried in caskets. All of those will affect the remains differently.

It also depends on how much remains we have of each service member. If we have the skulls and if there were antemortem records, then we can compare the postmortem dental records to what we may have for them in their antemortem state, and we can make positive identification through dental remains.

CHANG: How many U.S. troops are still unaccounted for in North Korea at this point?

DUUS: There are currently 7,697 still missing from the Korean War.

CHANG: There's also the question of how many sets of remains there are. I mean, in the past North Korean officials have claimed that they're in possession of somewhere around 200 sets of American remains. But only 55 were turned over this time. Is there concern that some remains are still missing or have just gone unaccounted for?

DUUS: Well, this is a continued partnership that President Trump and Chairman Kim have made. So I can't say whether or not we are going to receive more. However, this gesture of receiving these 55 cases to begin with is definitely historical and monumental. I don't know what will be in the future for having more remains returned. And just because there were - there's 55 boxes being returned does not necessarily mean that there's 55 complete sets...

CHANG: Right.

DUUS: ...Of remains...

CHANG: Right.

DUUS: ...Being returned. There's the possibility that they could be comingled and have several sets of remains per casket.

CHANG: What has the Department of Defense been hearing from families of missing personnel who have been waiting decades for some news?

DUUS: For the most part we have a lot of people with a lot of hope. They knew their service member was lost over in North Korea and that their remains are potentially still over there. So we have a lot of hope from family members that the remains that are brought back belong to their uncle, father, grandfather, husband. Anybody that we can identify is hopeful for the next family as well.

CHANG: Army Sergeant First Class Kristen Duus is a spokeswoman for the DPAA. It's the Department of Defense agency in charge of recovering personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

DUUS: Absolutely, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.