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U.S. Marks Return Of Remains Of U.S. Soldiers Who Died In Korean War


This morning, the U.S. military held a ceremony to mark the return of what are believed to be the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War 65 years ago. Now, this comes at a sensitive time for relations between the U.S. and North Korea. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is on the line from Osan Air Base in South Korea. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So what was said at today's ceremony?

KUHN: One level of this was a military ritual in which the commander of the U.N. forces in South Korea said, you know, here we are demonstrating our commitment to make sure that every prisoner of war or missing-in-action soldier is accounted for. So these soldiers' remains were picked up in North Korea last week, and then they're going home to Hawaii for forensic examination.

But on another level, this is about changes in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. And one of the people who went to North Korea was a doctor named John Byrd, who is a forensic anthropologist with the defense agency in charge of accounting for POWs and MIAs. Now, let's hear what he told reporters at this service.


JOHN BYRD: Our preliminary findings were that the remains are what the DPRK officials said they were. They do appear to be remains from the Korean War. They are likely to be American remains. And they are quite a lot - in fact, one of the largest unilateral turnovers we've ever received.

KING: Anthony, how many American soldiers are still missing in action in the Korean War?

KUHN: About 7,700 are missing, unaccounted for. And about 450 have been identified since 1982. But none have been repatriated for more than a decade because of the nuclear issue. And these body - these remains come from some very famous battle sites and POW camps around North Korea, like the Chosin Reservoir and stuff like that. And it's very hard to find them and identify them.

KING: What are the specifics of that? Why is that, given the scientific advances that we've made, et cetera?

KUHN: Well, it's just that there's no really good technology for finding remains. Basically, they just have to dig a lot of holes. And, you know, it's been 65 years. A lot has changed. And with these 55 set of remains that are being repatriated, there was one single soldier's dog tag. And the military says that it has already notified the soldier's family that his dog tag has been found. It's incredible.

KING: Well, that is incredible - the U.S. military obviously moving very quickly. Now, this ceremony comes at a tricky time, right? We've got these reports that North Korea is continuing to build nuclear weapons and missiles. What is the relationship between today's ceremony and the fight over denuclearization?

KUHN: Well, this is a positive event, which the military hopes there'll be more of, that they'll be able to go in there and look for more remains. At the same time, we've got these very disturbing reports coming out of North Korea, saying that they are deceiving everybody; they're continuing to build nukes and missiles. At the same time, people say, look; North Korea never made a commitment and said specifically when they're going to stop making these things. They made them to defend themselves, and they're not sure that everything with the U.S. is going to go - you know, that negotiations will go smoothly. So that is why people are saying it's not surprising that North Korea continues to do this.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn at Osan Air Base in South Korea. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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