UNC holds repatriation ceremony for 55 sets of war remains
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea, In a solemn ceremony marking the return of 55 sets of remains of presumed American troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, the U.N. Command (UNC) renewed its long-avowed pledge Wednesday: the fallen will never be forgotten nor be left behind.
The ceremony took place in a hangar at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, five days after a U.S. airplane transported the remains to the South from the North in a move expected to facilitate ongoing efforts to promote peace on the peninsula.
The repatriation was part of the June summit agreement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which also includes seeking to build "new" ties, fostering a "lasting and stable" peace regime and pursuing the complete denuclearization of the peninsula.
"Encouraged by recent cooperation with North Korea on this humanitarian effort ... we have gathered as the successors of the UNC in the Republic of Korea, and as the beneficiaries of the noble sacrifices of those who for a short while longer will remain nameless yet in our presence," UNC commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said during the event.
"To render our final salute to them, to lay a wreath in the names of our countries who fought side by side and who died side by side, and to be reminded once again of our solemn obligation to bring every one of them, the missing, the prisoners of war back home to their countries and their families," he added.
Brooks went on to say, "For the warriors, this is a cherished duty, a commitment made to one another before going to battle and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next. And for all in attendance, this is a solemn reminder that our work is not complete until all have been accounted for no matter how long it takes to do so."
500 people attended the ceremony, including South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris.
Upon return from the North on Friday, the remains were examined and cataloged at Osan Air Base by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) until Tuesday. POW stands for "prisoner of war" and MIA means "missing in action."
During the repatriation ceremony, the UNC staff honored the remains, which were put in metal caskets covered with UNC flags, with a 21-gun-salute in a show of respect and honor.
The remains were later loaded onto the U.S. transport aircraft bound for a DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, where historians and scientists will work on forensic identification.
At the DPAA lab, staffed by more than 30 anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic odontologists, the remains are examined to produce a biological profile that includes sex, race and age at death. Scientists use various techniques, such as analysis of skeletal remains and sampling mitochondrial DNA. They also analyze material evidence, including uniforms, personal effects and identification tags.
When the identification process is complete, the remains will be returned to their next of kin for burial.
Earlier in the day, a U.S. forensic scientist said that the 55 sets of remains are "likely" to be of the American war dead.
"Our preliminary findings were that the remains are what the (North Korean) officials said they were. They do appear to be remains from the Korean War. They are likely to be American remains," Dr. John Byrd, director of scientific analysis for DPAA, told reporters at the U.S. air base.
His remarks indicated that his agency did not rule out the possibility that the remains could be of soldiers from other countries that sent troops under the U.N. banner during the war.
Byrd also confirmed a recent report that a "dog tag," or a military identification tag, was found among the remains.
"It is true that there was a senior dog tag provided with the remains. The family of that individual has been notified that this dog tag has been turned over," he said. "But I would caution everyone to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the case that the dog tag goes with the remains that came across in the same box."
In the same press conference, U.S. Consul General Angela Kerwin said that the repatriation shows "the tangible result of the commitment" that Trump and Kim made during their Singapore summit.
"There was no payment for these remains. The U.S. law permits reimbursement in certain circumstances That did not take place (in this case)," she added.
Since 1990, an estimated 629 sets of U.S. war remains have been recovered, according to the UNC.
The U.S. estimates that some 7,630 sets of remains, including about 1,000 in the Demilitarized Zone, are in the North.
Wednesday's event comes amid growing concerns about a lack of progress in the North's denuclearization efforts.
Washington and Pyongyang appear to be at loggerheads over the sequence of what could be a long peace process.
The North wants the U.S. to agree to a political declaration of a formal end to the Korean War in an apparent move to ensure its regime security, while the U.S. apparently wants the communist state to take concrete denuclearization steps first, including an accurate declaration of its nuclear and missile programs.
Source: Yonhap News Agency