WASHINGTON (AP) — The remains of more American soldiers killed decades ago in the Korean War are likely to be identified shortly from 55 boxes provided last summer by the North Korean army, the lead scientist working on the identifications said Wednesday.
John Byrd, director of the Defense Department laboratory responsible for the work, said in an Associated Press interview that the additional identifications are probably coming in the next few weeks.
He said there will be at least a couple, with a few more that are not quite as advanced in the process also likely to be positively identified.
"We are finalizing all of the reports and putting them through final quality assurance before we officially make the ID and notify the families," Byrd said.
This progress comes as President Donald Trump prepares for a follow-up summit meeting next week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on nuclear disarmament. At their first meeting in June, Kim agreed to turn over an unspecified number of U.S. war remains. Trump hailed this as evidence of an improved U.S. relationship with the North.
Byrd's lab thus far has positively identified three U.S. soldiers from the remains in the 55 boxes, including one last month.
Byrd said it was too early to provide a firm estimate of how many individuals are likely to be represented in the remains, but he offered an educated guess — based on his extensive experience and having worked with the remains since last summer — that "it's probably more than 50 and less than 100."
He said early indications are that perhaps 80 percent of the remains are those of Americans. The rest likely are Asians - probably South Koreans who fought alongside Americans.
The North Korean army turned over the 55 boxes on July 27, in line with a joint Trump-Kim statement at the conclusion of their Singapore summit on June 12 that the United States and North Korea "commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified." U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.
Although next week's Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi is focused mainly on nuclear weapons issues, and there is no clear sign that it will deal again with Korean War remains, military family groups are holding out hope the talks will give a new boost to what have become stalled efforts by the Pentagon to resume recovery efforts inside North Korea.
"We are pursuing the highest levels of government to be sure it's on the agenda" in Hanoi, said Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. Downes, who was 3 when his father, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes, went missing in action in North Korea in January 1952, was present in Hawaii last summer when an American plane delivered the 55 boxes. He said in an interview Tuesday his group is troubled that the issue seems to have since fallen from the attention of senior U.S. officials.
The North has yet to agree to face-to-face negotiations on terms under which Defense Department recovery personnel would be allowed to travel to known locations of missing U.S. soldiers. The reason for this impasse is unclear, but it has dashed U.S. hopes for beginning recovery operations as early as this spring.
Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said Wednesday, "We remain optimistic that joint recovery operations this summer are still possible."
The U.S. undertook 33 joint recovery operations in North Korea between 1996 and 2005, when they were suspended by Washington amid growing U.S. concern about the North's nuclear weapons program. The Pentagon estimates that about 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.
Trump occasionally cites his Singapore meeting as evidence of a breakthrough with North Korea on the long-contentious issue of recovering remains from the Korean War, which ended in 1953.
"The remains are coming back," Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office. He said "certain" ones had been identified, not mentioning that the number is just three. "Their families' members have found out exactly what's going on, and they've had ceremonies that are absolutely beautiful," he added.
He went on to say that during his 2016 campaign he was approached by people who asked, 'Is it possible to get the remains back from North Korea?' So we've done that," although the numbers thus far are relatively small.
The first person identified from the materials in the 55 boxes was Army Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel of Butler, Missouri, and Vernon, Indiana. The second was Army Pfc. William H. Jones of Nash County, North Carolina. And the third, announced last month, was Army Sgt. Frank Julius Suliman of Nixon, New Jersey.