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American remains returned from North Korea could take days or decades to be identified



WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When the remnants of Americans surrendered by North Korea arrive in Hawaii on Wednesday, the US military will begin an arduous identification process that experts say could take from three days to two decades ,

The United Nations Command crew and officials and the US Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) are securing UNC flags on transit cases of survivors killed in the 1

950-53 Korean War for further processing and identification in Wonsan , North Korea, July 27, 2018. Shot from July 27, 2018. Courtesy US Forces Korea / Handout via REUTERS

The 55 boxes, draped in the blue-and-white flag of the United Nations, are each small enough to hold in their arms to be carried by a person.

They carry not only the remains of missing Korean War soldiers from 1950-1953, but also a message of goodwill that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made at his summit meeting with US President Donald Trump in June.

The remains in each box may not be those of a single person and are likely fragments of bones, said Paul Cole, an expert on the recovery of missing soldiers and prisoners of war who worked as a visiting scientist in Hawaii Central Identification Laboratory where the boxes land ,

Remix blending reflects the violent repercussions that people face during war.

A soldier carries a coffin bearing the remains of a US soldier killed in a Korean war at a ceremony on the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on July 27, 2018. REUTERS / Kim Hong-Ji / Pool [19659008] The lab is working to determine if the remains are human. Then the experts will count the bones and determine a minimum number of persons that could be included in the delivery.

Every bone or fragment provides a clue. The femur indicates the height, the age of the pelvis, the face and the skull. The collarbone and teeth provide some of the best comparisons to the personnel file that the Department of Defense keeps from missing military personnel, said Cole, author of the book "POW / MIA Accounting: In Search of America's Missing Soldiers in the Soviet Union."

SIX YEARS OF MAINTENANCE

When the bones meet the size requirements, the lab cuts off a piece and sends it to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, where it is analyzed and compared to family reference samples.

If the bone is too small, the DNA analysis can not be performed. Federal law prohibits the destruction of evidence in testing, and DNA analysis destroys the bone, said Cole.

Such challenges can delay the process by many years.

Slideshow (4 images)

"Problems such as the inability to get DNA out of bones and the lack of a DNA reference sample from the family can be big stumbling blocks," said Chuck Prichard, director of public affairs Matters at the PWA / MIA Payroll Authority, the main unit of the US military for the search and identification of missing members.

The identification process does not prove that the bones belong to a person, but that they could not belong to anyone, said Cole. Sometimes all families receive fragments that are small enough to fit in the palm of their hand.

Yet the mission is full of expectations and political weight.

Trump thanked Kim last week for keeping the promise he had made as part of their talks on North Korea's de-nuclearization.

"And I'm sure he'll continue to live up to that promise while they search, search and search," said Trump, who sent Vice President Mike Pence to Hawaii to obtain the remains.

The US State Department said this month it would resume joint field activities to search for the remnants of Americans who disappeared from the war. It is estimated that a total of 5,300 American soldiers have been lost in what is now North Korea.

Gail Embery found out that her father, Sergeant Coleman Edwards, had disappeared in Korea when she was about ten years old. She hopes her father's mortal remains will be among those arriving on Wednesday.

"I always knew that I would have to find my dad, I always knew it in my heart," Embery said. "I'm 73 now, and I'm still watching."

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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