Hawaii scientists begin difficult task of identifying remains turned over by NKorea

Hawaii scientists begin difficult task of identifying remains turned over by NKorea
Updated: Sep. 5, 2018 at 8:48 PM HST
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JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) - Anthropologists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency have photographed and cataloged the skeletal remains that were in 55 boxes North Korea returned to the United States last month.

The lab is trying to determine how many are remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War.

Each box held bones from several people that will first undergo DNA tests.

"That process in and of itself is a two- to four-month process. That will just be the first step," said Greg Berg, manager of the DPAA lab on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

For the North Korea project, the scientists created an isotope laboratory to test the bones for carbon, oxygen and nitrogen content.

Berg said results can uncover astounding details, from what starch that person ate to where their drinking water came from.

"We can pick that up in isotopic analysis," he said. "We can then triage that remains and suggest these are not from the United States whereas these are."

That will help separate the bones that could be those of South Korean soldiers and other foreign fighters who fought alongside American troops.

North Korea also returned material artifacts. They include a helmet, a pair of boots, canteens, socks, uniform buttons, bayonet scabbards, and pieces of web gear.

"It's everything that you'd associate with being on a soldier," Berg said.

Forensic anthropologist Denise To and her team will compare the artifacts to photographs and drawings in old military manuals to see if they match what U.S. soldiers used during the Korean war.

They'll also use special lights to search for identifying marks.

"It's possible that some of the items may have a name written on it with a pen or engraved on it," she said.

Berg said about 20 of the 55 boxes held remains from one mass grave near North Korea's Chosin Reservoir, the site of one of the Korean War's major battles.

"They all appear to have the same sort of coloration on the exterior of the bones. So it does appear that these were all buried together at one point in time," he said.

The scientists are well aware that each bone represents someone whose family is waiting for closure.

"Taking care of these remains with the utmost level of dignity and respect is on the forefront," To said.

The anthropologists working on the North Korea project have already identified many U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War. After a positive ID they add that service member's photograph to boards that are displayed in the laboratory.

They hope to add more photos after examining the remains released by North Korea.

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