President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook look on during a joint remains repatriation ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base Hangar 19 in Hawaii on Wednesday as guards of honor transfer remains of Koreans to an aircraft. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in received the remains of 68 South Korean service members who died during the Korean War in a ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base, in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Wednesday. Two sets of identified remains — belonging to Privates Kim Seok-ju and Chung Hwan-jo — were placed on the presidential airplane.
Kim and Chung served with the US 7th Infantry Division as part of the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) program in the Korean War and died on the Kaema Plateau, in South Hamgyong Province, during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
The 66 unidentified sets of remains will return to Korea aboard a KC-330 Cygnus, a multipurpose aerial refueling tanker.
The remains of these Korean soldiers are returning home from Hawaii because that’s the location of the US’ Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which operates under the slogan “until they are home.” DPAA staff work around the world to recover the remains of US service members. Anthropologists and forensic pathologists are among those who unearth remains, which are then sent to Hickam Air Force Base for identification.
The US has declared Sept. 17 to be National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
“Today, more than 81,900 US personnel remain unaccounted for — including more than 72,000 from World War II, more than 7,500 from the Korean War, and more than 1,500 from the Vietnam War,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during this year’s ceremony, which was held at the Pentagon on Sept. 17.
In a speech at the ceremony, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten offered his thoughts on what should be done for US soldiers who died on the battlefield.
“What we can do is remember what they fought for. Remember what they sacrificed for. Remember what wearing the cloth of this country signifies. And remember why we fight,” he said.
Hyten added that the US military would go anywhere to bring home missing soldiers and that it would never forget or abandon them. The US places great importance on bringing prisoners of war and soldiers reported missing in action back to their families.
The idea is to reassure American service members who are constantly fighting in conflict zones around the world that the US military will rescue them if they’re taken captive or recover their remains if they’re killed in action.
The DPAA estimates that 5,300 of 7,500 American soldiers reported missing in action in the Korean War are buried in North Korea. The Americans and North Koreans carried out a joint recovery project in the North from July 1996 to May 2005. Remains that were recovered in that project were sent back to the US.
The DPAA analyzed stable isotopes (isotopes that don’t undergo radioactive decay) in the remains to determine whether they were from a person of Asian descent or not. The stable isotope method of identifying remains involves analyzing the ratio of isotopes that build up in the bones to determine in which region the deceased individual was born and raised.
After determining that a soldier’s remains are Asian, the US then runs a mitochondrial DNA test on the remains alongside samples provided by family members of missing service members. If there’s no match, there’s a good chance the remains belonged to a South Korean soldier.
More than 9,000 of 43,600 Koreans attached to the US army through KATUSA during the Korean War were killed in action.
South Korea’s Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification, under the Ministry of National Defense, follows a similar approach when recovering remains in the field. Investigators first determine whether the remains are Asian or European and then examine adjacent shell casings, helmets, food containers, personal effects and bullets in the remains to determine if they belonged to a South Korean soldier, a North Korean soldier, or a Chinese soldier.
By Kwon Hyuk-chul, senior staff writer
Please direct questions or comments to [firstname.lastname@example.org]