Forensic scientist Dr. John Byrd on Tuesday characterized his interactions with the North Koreans as very different and “much more friendly” during a trip to recover 55 boxes of human remains than they were when he interacted with them from 1996 to 2005.
Director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPA) Kelly McKeague briefed reporters at the White House Tuesday on the process of identifying remains returned from North Korea and future joint operations to recover more remains from North Korea. Dr. Byrd joined McKeague for the briefing along with Dr. Tim McMahon.
Byrd responded to a reporter’s request for him to characterize what it has been like to work with the North Koreans. He said he spent a lot of time working in the field in North Korea from the 1996 to 2005 years as well as on the July 27 trip to recover the 55 boxes of remains this year. He remarked at the difference between their demeanor in the past years versus this trip, “there was a very different feel to it this time. It was a much more friendly, welcoming, and collegial approach this time compared to the way it used to be.”
Dr. Byrd and his forensic team in Hawaii are well into analysis of the remains in the 55 boxes the U.S. received from North Korea.
Dr. Tim McMahon and his team of DNA specialists in Delaware are set to “begin their meticulous testing” of the remains in coming weeks, according to McKeague.
“The medal of our scientists and the capabilities of our labs will be challenged, but in the months and years ahead they will make identifications from these remains and give families long-sought answers,” said McKeague. “We are guardedly optimistic the one August repatriation is the first tangible action of others with which we will be able to account for more of our missing from the Korean War.”
It will take time, months and possibly years,to identify the remains returned to the U.S. in the 55 boxes. McKeague specifically pointed to the time it takes to process DNA samples and search available possible matches. Those processing the remains will also look at defining characteristics of the remains and dental records to help in the identification process.
Dr. John Byrd described the preservation of the remains from the 55 boxes as moderate to poor; however, he said his forensic lab specializes in cases where they have very little to work with.
He then addressed the second portion of North Korea’s commitment from the Singapore summit. The U.S. is well into next steps in conversations with DPRK officials on undertaking recovery missions in the field seeking other remains of Americans within North Korea.
“The 45 countries that we work with all rightfully recognize this as a humanitarian endeavor,” said McKeague.
One hundred eighty six DPA and private partners are actively deployed in seven countries, where they are seeking out remains of Americans in the field. McKeague mentioned 50 that have recently returned from missions in Laos and the Phlippines.
Dr. Byrd also confirmed that there was an initial inspection of the remains before loading them on to aircraft that determined at least some of the 55 boxes of remains were human. In South Korea his team spent two days combing through the boxes in a field forensic review that ensured all of the remains were human.