President Donald Trump announced at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday that North Korea has returned the remains of 200 U.S. troops who went missing during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953.
“We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back,” said Trump. This would represent the bulk of the American remains North Korea has admitted to possessing.
Four administration officials clarified to CNN that “planning is underway to receive the remains from North Korea in the coming days, although the actual transfer date and location have not been finalized.” The U.S. is ready to take the remains in the next few days if North Korea agrees to provide them so quickly.
The officials said it would also take some time to verify that the remains are those of American soldiers. They did not know if additional identification such as dog tags or identification cards would be provided. If not, verification will have to rely on DNA analysis according to very strict protocols observed by the U.S. military for missing soldiers.
“When the transfer happens, it is expected that North Korean officials will turn them over to United Nations representatives at the DMZ, which marks the border between North and South Korea. The UN at that point will turn them over to US military personnel for a brief ceremony,” CNN reported.
One of the officials who spoke to CNN suggested the White House could send an envoy to Pyongyang to collect the remains and escort them home, rather than receiving them at the border, which would be a remarkable media event if it occurred.
Reuters sources said the United Nations Command in South Korea is expecting the return of a “sizeable number” of remains, which will then be sent to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
The Wall Street Journal skeptically notes that North Korea’s previous returns of foreign remains have been a little dodgy. When the U.K. complained in 2011 that the alleged remains of a British fighter pilot were not a pilot, British, or human, the North Korean military replied, “Too bad.”
The Journal concludes that if North Korea is really willing to hand over 200+ sets of American remains just a few weeks after President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un, then it’s either a con job or Pyongyang has been sitting on those remains for a long time, waiting for the right moment to use them as a diplomatic bargaining chip.
While American forensic technicians will probably be able to quickly determine if North Korea is attempting to pass off a dead animal as human remains, as they did with the British in 2011, full DNA identification of human remains from such a long time ago can take years, so there is reason for North Korea to think it could get away with surrendering bogus remains. Dead people are one of the few resources Kim Jong-un has in abundance.