United Nations Command returned 55 cases of remains from North Korea to Osan Air Base, South Korea, on July 27, 2018. Members of the command and the Osan community were on hand at the arrival ceremony. Photo by Sgt. Quince Lanford/U.S. Army
July 31 (UPI) -- The July 27 ceremony at Osan Air Base, South Korea, transferred 55 boxes of Korean War remains to the United States following an agreement with North Korea -- now comes the hard part of identifying them.
Taking the lead is the Defense Prisoner of War, Missing in Action Accounting Agency, based out of Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, which announced Tuesday it is ready to start the work of identifying the remains.
The boxes transferred at the ceremony in South Korea were covered in United Nations flags because many other nations fought with the United States during the brutal three year conflict, though the DPAA has noted the remains are presumed to be Americans.
How long it takes to identify the remains is fraught with uncertainty and depends on a number of factors, Lee Tucker, a spokesperson at the DPAA, told UPI.
"It depends if the remains are commingled, if there is any viable DNA to be extracted, whether there is any DNA from relatives that can be found," Tucker said. "I've seen cases where it takes 6-12 months and remains recovered in the 1990s that we still have not figured out."
The service organization Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has taken a leading role in pushing for the recovery of war remains, says that part of the problem is lack of DNA samples from family members.
"Some 5,300 of 7,699 American unaccounted-for war dead are believed to be in North Korea, and 111 of our 126 Cold War missing are in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula," VFW National Commander Vincent Lawrence said in a statement.
"Yet family reference samples on file only account for 91 percent of Korean War missing and 85 percent of Cold War losses," Lawrence said. He urged family members of any missing soldier to provide the DPAA with DNA samples.
Unlike current Department of Defense policy, which places a priority on recovery of all remains lost in combat, many soldiers in the Korean War were buried where they fell. Many American POWs who succumbed to privation were also buried by their captors in unmarked graves.
The United States was allowed to send teams to search for and analyze remains at one point, but the program was suspended by North Korea in 2005. Whether it will be allowed to resume is an open question, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on July 27.
"That would be worked out. It certainly is something we're interested in exploring with the North Koreans," Mattis said. "We'll have to sort it out. Obviously we want to continue this sort of humanitarian effort."
How many American remains are actually in the transferred boxes remains to be seen, and thousands still remain unaccounted for, officials say, warning that it could take many years before even the recently transferred remains can be fully analyzed.