North Korea’s Grave Secrets: What U.S. Remains Can Reveal

Fifty-five packages of remains supposed to be Americans killed in the Korean War were sent to a U.S. government lab on Hawaii this week. Now the real investigative work begins.

Kim Hong-Ji/AFP/Getty

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea—Identifying bone fragments from those killed in the Korean War more than 65 years ago began the moment Pyongyang handed them over to the Americans.

Forensic experts from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) landing at the North Korean airport at once sought to determine if all were really human and to look for evidence of racial or ethnic origin. Apparently none of the remains belonged to animals.

Now comes the tough part. Examine the bones hard and long enough, and they have tales to tell—how old a person was and how they died, whether killed in battle, in a plane crash or an accident, of some disease, or malnutrition. And there may be much that they reveal that various parties, including some American politicians, would rather conceal.

Efforts at reconciliation with North Korea would not be helped if the remains carry signs of a disease contracted by a prisoner of war. Torture leaves its own marks, as would summary execution with a bullet to the back of the head.

It’s not likely the North Koreans would have turned over remains showing blatant signs of abuse, but diligent forensic work sometimes brings surprising results. More than one mystery novel and television episode has been built around such sleuthing, most notably in the “Bones” series by forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs.

For now, for the record, John Byrd, director of scientific analysis at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratories at Hickam Air Base on Hawaii, responsible for the painstaking process of analyzing remains from all America’s wars, believes the 55 sets the North Koreans handed over a week ago at the new Kalma Airport near the North’s east coast port city of Wonsan were authentic.

As for where they were discovered, Byrd said his agency was "provided information as to where each box came from, but the information is not as to a specific spot." There was, he said, “no reason at this point to doubt them.” But neither is there confirmation, and as we will see, there are credible theories about where the bones essentially were stockpiled.

In any case, it will take months, possibly years, to try to identify whose remains are whose. More often than not, a set of remains is never going to go with the name of one specific GI among the 5,300 American soldiers, airmen or marines still “missing in action” in North Korea.

Trump, who had said six weeks ago the North Koreans had already returned 200 sets of remains, seemed immensely relieved.

Bit by bit, chip by chip, forensic scientists try to match remains using DNA analysis, an extremely intricate jigsaw puzzle where they hope to piece together distinct individuals even though they may never know their names. It’s possible, for instance, to conclude a tooth and a femur are from the same person even though no other fragments are found.

To be sure, the challenge of identifying which remains belong to whom, much less the stories of how they died, was conspicuously overlooked in the extraordinary ceremonies here marking the return of the 55 packages.

Team Trump made the most of a display intended to divert attention from the simple reality that North Korea has done nothing about the “complete denuclearization” that Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un apparently agreed in Singapore on June 12 in that brief statement in which, in a final add-on fourth point, they also “committed” to cooperating to recover remains.

Trump, who had said six weeks ago the North Koreans had already returned 200 sets of remains, seemed immensely relieved. "Thank you to Chairman Kim Jong Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and beloved missing fallen!” he tweeted. “I am not at all surprised that you took this kind action.”

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The mood of the ceremony here was solemn, dignified, yet colorful as members of all military services in dress uniforms, plus dignitaries and representatives of 18 countries under the U.N. Command, gathered in a giant warehouse beside the tarmac of Osan Air Base.

The bones lay inside aluminum coffins, draped in the blue flags of the U.N. Command, resting on trestles, as the U.S. Eighth Army band played the Star Spangled Banner and the anthem of South Korea. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who heads up both the U.N. command and U.S. Forces Korea, spoke of "the sacrifices" of the fallen and "our solemn obligation" to their families. He also noted "our work is not done until all have been accounted for no matter how long it takes."

The ceremony ended as the band played the American and Korean versions of Taps before the coffins, now draped in American flags, were carried to two C17 cargo planes for the flight to Hawaii’s Hickam Air Base. Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to welcome them as an honor guard unloaded the caskets.

“These heroes were never forgotten,” said Pence. “Our boys are coming home.” The job of recovery, he said, would “not be complete until all our fallen heroes are accounted for and home.”

Like much else emanating from the White House, that pledge was meaningless, since most of the remains will never be found — and many of the bones that have been turned over will go unidentified despite the painstaking forensics.

North Korea may claim the remains ... were 'discovered' by farmers, but U.S. intel reports indicate the North Koreans have warehoused hundreds of U.S. remains.
Mark Sauter and John Zimmerlee, authors of "American Trophies"

Over all those problems hangs the whole issue of how to deal with the North Koreans, who are highly attuned to the political impact of the search for remains and playing their own games with the Americans. Two Americans, one a former U.S. Army infantry officer who served in South Korea in the 1980s, the other the son of a U.S. Air Force officer shot down in the Korean War, have investigated the quest for the remains for years and are as critical of the Americans as they are  of the North Koreans.

“North Korea may claim the remains to be returned this week were ‘discovered’ by farmers,” write Mark Sauter, who commanded a guard post on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and John Zimmerlee, who barely knew his father before his plane went down in 1952, “but U.S. intel reports indicate the North Koreans have warehoused hundreds of U.S. remains.” The reason, they believe, was to sell them back to Americans who were all too eager to recover them as evidence of the success of American policy.

Sauter and Zimmerlee, who have co-authored a book on the fate of POWS and MIAS from the Korean War, go back to when the Americans and North Koreans were forming "joint recovery teams" before President George W. Bush cut off the searches 13 years ago amid concerns about security. In that period, they say, the North Koreans "sent back mingled and misidentified remains and, in one alleged case, animal remains" that they said belonged to a soldier from one of the 16 countries allied with the U.S. and South Korea under the rubric of the UN Command.

But that’s not all. “There is,” say Sauter and Zimmerlee, the issue of “the glacial pace of Pentagon identifications" at the hands of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, formed at the beginning of 2015 after complaints surrounding several agencies that failed to work together effectively. The current DPAA and its predecessor, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, "has still not identified all the remains North Korea returned in 1954.”

Remains this old are often commingled, incomplete, in poor shape, or fragmentary.
Kathy Reichs, forensic anhropologist and best-selling novelist

Kathy Reichs, a former consultant for JPAC, tells The Daily Beast she remembers “much talk of Korean remains being warehoused, other remains being buried at battlefields.” But she notes that the science has advanced tremendously over the years.  “ID’s were tough before DNA,” she says. “Remains this old are often commingled, incomplete, in poor shape, or fragmentary.”

Then there were bureaucratic hassles. Reichs, who has explored these issues extensively in scholarly papers as well as in her fiction, recalls that an ID, “once confirmed,” had to be “reviewed at multiple levels.” Finally  “there was a shake-up” in which the scientific director “was ousted a few years ago” and Byrd, “a very competent scientist,” took over, she says.

Sauter and Zimmerlee hear a lot of complaints as they work for the POW Investigative Project, which specializes in obtaining clues on missing Americans. The complaints from the Korean War are so intense, they say, that “some American POW/MIA family members are demanding the 'new' remains be sent to private labs, fearing they — the POW/MIA loved ones — will be dead before the remains are identified if left in the hands of the Pentagon."

It was perhaps to forestall hard questions that reporters were given only a few minutes to question two DPAA officials, including scientist John Byrd, before the ceremony here. The first task was “to make sure they’re human," said Byrd. They were, he went on, “consistent with remains we’ve recovered” before the last previous transfer 11 years ago.

Byrd seemed unconcerned that the North Koreans had returned, along with the remains, 'only one dog tag.'

Yes, there was "always the possibility when you're dealing with old bones that animal bones may be recovered," he responded to a follow-up. "It's very easy for this to happen, but we can confirm that no animal bones were given to us."

Nor did Byrd seem concerned that the North Koreans had returned, along with the remains, "only one dog tag" — the metallic identification tag worn around the neck, giving name, rank and serial number -- the only information that a member of the armed forces may be required to reveal if captured. "It is true that there was a single dog tag provided with the remains," he said, but they also returned "a lot of military hardware" such as canteens and helmets.

“Our feeling is they are American,” said Byrd, but he had no answer for how they might have died. Will we ever know -- or will DPAA, in line with Trump’s desire to get along with Kim, hold back on revealing clues that might seem disturbing? That consideration adds to the frustrations of aging relatives who are realistically never likely to know what happened to their loved ones.

The DPAA is no stranger to recriminations. The agency came to life after charges of delays, wasted time, inflated expenditures and simple failure to come up with results had raised pervasive doubts about the search among several agencies. If the controversy was sublimated by the solemnity of the ceremonies here and at Hickam, the history of the quest is mired in bitter memories and concerns that nothing much has changed.

Controversy focuses not only on North Korea but also on searches for remains from Vietnam and World War II.

One persistent worry is the extremely high cost of coming up with a single set of remains. At Wednesday's ceremony, officials denied, as always, having paid any kind of fee to recover any of the remains in the rows of coffins lined up in the warehouse, but there was no word on “expenses”-- or how much the DPAA will have to invest in future searches.

Zimmerlee ranges from frustration to rage over the responses he’s gotten about what became of his father, a navigator on a B-26 that never returned from a night mission. “I learned that they had a 1961 report on the gunner that suggested he might have been captured,” he told me in an email. When he “requested the doc from govt, they claimed they didn’t know where to find the report.” After he found the reference number, “they sent me a letter that it does not exist,” but the next week “I found it readily available at the archives just 19 miles from their office.”

Zimmerlee believes the latest set of remains may have been disinterred from an old United Nations cemetery in Pyongyang -- a burial ground established by U.S. troops in the brief period in which they held the North Korean capital after driving the North Koreans from South Korea in September 1950 and advancing into the North. Chinese troops soon recaptured Pyongyang for the North Koreans, and in 1954, a year after the signing of the armistice, the North Koreans agreed to return the remains of 184 Americans buried in the cemetery

In what the Americans called "Operation Glory," says Zimmerlee, the North Koreans returned all but 61 of the 184 from the cemetery.

Now, he believes, though North Korea offered after the Trump-Kim summit  to return 200 remains, "those may have been randomly acquired and difficult to identity." It was "to avoid embarrassment," he suspects, that "our government put off the return of random remains and encouraged North Korea to disinter the remains still in the Pyongyang cemetery and buried carefully by our own forces." He notes "the 55 returned are very close in number to those 61 still in the cemetery."

Regardless of whether it's really possible to do much about the delays in identification, the numbers are troubling. So far, according to the DPAA, the Americans have recovered only 629 sets of remains, among which 334 have been identified for sure. All told, 153 sets were identified among 229 picked up in the 11 years in which the U.S. and North Korea were running joint recovery teams. If joint teams again are formed, as agreed on by Trump and Kim, the record will almost certainly be worse—time, weather, and shifting terrain have made recovery all the more difficult.

The DPAA is defensive about what it's doing. Yes, says a DPAA statement, North Korean officials "have indicated they possess as many as 200 sets of remains they had recovered over the years." The statement cites without elaboration "the commitment" made by Trump and Kim for North Korea to repatriate them in accordance with "the humanitarian aspects of this mission." Whenever negotiations "result in the resumption of field operations," it said, "subsequent planning and logistical discussions would be conducted to determine how they would be executed."

Sauter and Zimmerlee have plenty of stories to tell of the problems ahead. In one case, they say, the Pentagon identified the remains of a colonel reported missing when his B29 bomber crashed. The success of positive identification, though, was marred by the reality that the plane had gone down 80 miles from where his remains were found. "This raises an obvious question," they note. "How did an aviator's body end up in infantry fighting position especially when he was known to be a POW and he’d been named on Peking Radio?”

The Pentagon, they say, "has to be careful in receiving remains from Pyongyang" since "the regime has engaged in deception operations -- including 'salting' sites to be excavated." There was the time, they say, when "a 'battlefield' remains was discovered with its cranium glued together" while "at least one other had been prepared for use as a lab skeleton." The North Koreans buried remains "at locations the U.S. had paid to search."

Such unpleasantness, though, was left unmentioned, not hinted at, in the ceremonies here and at Hickam. "May God bless the souls of those who lie before us," intoned General Brooks, "and provide comfort to those who await the return of their warriors." As the history shows, the wait is likely to go on for many more decades—with the dead certainty that most of the missing will remain MIA.