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North Korea Turns Over 55 Boxes Of Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman


It's been 65 years to the day since an armistice ended the Korean War. And this morning at Osan Air Base in South Korea, American and allied troops received 55 flag-draped boxes flown from North Korea. Inside were what are believed to be the remains of American soldiers. An estimated 5,300 troops are still listed as missing in action in North Korean territory, and last month's U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore has now restarted a process of bringing them home, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: There have been two clear outcomes from the summit. President Trump suspended U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. Now North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has resumed the repatriation of American war remains. Trump today suggested there would be more to come.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me. And I'm sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search.

LAWRENCE: Between 1950 and 1953, the Korean War killed almost 37,000 Americans. Millions of civilians died, including perhaps 25 percent of the North Korean population. In the decades since, war dead have been returned by both sides but not since 2007 when disputes over the North Korean nuclear program shut it down.


JIM MATTIS: We also look at it as a first step of a restarting process.

LAWRENCE: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this gesture carries forward goodwill that began with this summit.


MATTIS: So we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home, perhaps to have our own teams go in. They've been in there before, by the way. And so we're looking at all this. But, you know, this is the first step.

LAWRENCE: A first step in a long journey according to forensic anthropologist P. Willey who was on one of the American teams to visit North Korea more than a decade ago.

P WILLEY: In the early '90s when that was going on, one time there were 208 boxes that were transferred. The problem they had was that many of the boxes showed mixed sets of remains. In other words, it wasn't just one box, one person.

LAWRENCE: Willey says some of the remains came labeled with a location, often unknown prisoner of war camp, where surviving POW's can help identify who might have died. But other remains were sometimes obviously reburied for American teams to find. The North may have a warehouse of remains, says Willey. The Pentagon says North Korean officials in the past indicated they had 200 sets of remains. It's not clear why just 55 boxes arrived today. And Willey cautions that positive identification can take years.

WILLEY: Almost 30 years later, they're still working on the remains that came in in the 208 boxes in the early '90s.

LAWRENCE: The VFW today sent a message urging members to provide DNA samples to help with identification. The remains could also be Korean or from other allies that fought under a United Nations banner, says Jim Mattis.


MATTIS: You know this story - the U.N. blue flag on each of the boxes. Many of the U.N. nations with us also have missing. We don't know who's in those boxes. They could - and they could go to Australia. They have missing. France has missing, Americans. There's not a whole lot of us. So this is an international effort to bring closure for those families.

LAWRENCE: Mattis said other diplomatic advances might flow from the positive tone set by this humanitarian act. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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