HONOLULU – Decades after the end of the Korean War in 1953, the remnants of dozens of suspected US war victims returned to Hawaii for analysis and identification. The US military believes that the bones are US soldiers and potential soldiers from other UN member states who fought for South Korea with the US during the war.
United States Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a ceremony before the flagged containers carrying the remains were taken out of the plane in groups of four as solemn music.
"Those who come out of these planes are starting a new season of hope for the families of our missing fallen soldiers today," Pence said. "I hope the lost ones are still found, I hope they will be closed after so many years of questions."
Each container was accompanied by a marine, a sailor, a soldier and a flier. They gently placed the caskets on risers lined up in the hangar, while Pence ran his hand over his heart. Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, saluted.
Some of the invited guests wiped their tears during the procession of the containers from the aircraft.
North Korea handed over the remains last week. An American military plane made a rare trip to North Korea to locate the 55 cases.
About 7,700 US soldiers are reported missing in the 1950/53 Korean War and it is estimated that about 5,300 of the remains are still in North Korea.
The uncle of Hanwell Kaakimaka, John Kaakimaka, is one of those who never came home.
"We watched the news and hoped that my uncle would be among the remnants," he said, adding that this could bring some closure to his family.
His uncle, who came from Honolulu, was corporal in the 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division of the Army. He was missing on 2 December 1950.
Hanwell Kaakimaka said the story he heard from his father was that his uncle was injured and was returned from the front when Chinese troops overran the area and attacked the convoy.
If John Kaakimaka's remains are ever identified, his family wants him buried in a graveyard at the foot of the Diamond Head Crater in Honolulu, where his parents and brothers were laid to rest, Hanwell Kaakimaka said.
The Kaakimaka family provided DNA samples to the US Defense Department, POW / MIA, over a decade ago, hoping that the officials would be able to make a match.
The agency identifies remnants of soldiers killed in past conflicts. It typically uses bones, teeth, and DNA to identify remnants along with any items found with remnants such as uniforms, dog tags, and wedding rings. But North Korea provided only one dog tag with the 55 boxes it handed over last week.
Hundreds of US and South Korean troops gathered on a hangar in the South Korean base of Osan for the return ceremony before the remnants of military aircraft were brought to Hawaii.
"For the warrior, this is a cherished duty, a commitment that comes before the fight and passes from one generation warrior to the next," said Vincent Brooks, head of the US military in South Korea speech.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last week that the return of 55 boxes is a positive step, but no guarantee that the bones are Americans.
A US defense official said on Tuesday that it will probably take months, if not years, to determine the individual identities from the remains. The official, who discussed previously unknown aspects of the remnant problem under the condition of anonymity, also said that North Korea provided a single military identification mark along with the remains. The officer did not know the details of the single badge, including the name or even an American military member.
The repatriation is a breakthrough in a long-running US attempt to obtain war remnants from North Korea.
There are 7,699 US soldiers reported missing in the 1950-1953 Korean War, of which about 5,300 died on North Korean soil. The rest are those who died in South Korea but were not recovered; those who died in the air collapse at sea or on ships at sea, as well as a number of persons believed to have been taken to China.
The return of bones was part of an agreement reached during a June summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump thanked Kim for the return.
During the summit, Kim also agreed to "work for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," in return for Trump's promise of security guarantees. Trump later suspended annual military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea had long described as an invasion test.
But Trump sees himself at home and elsewhere in criticism that North Korea has not taken any serious steps toward disarmament and may be trying to gain time to weaken international sanctions against him.
North Korea halted nuclear and missile testing, shut down its nuclear test site and began demolishing facilities at its rocket launch site. But many experts say that these are neither irrevocable nor serious steps that could show that the country is truly denuclearizing.
North Korea may want to use the return of the remnants to keep diplomacy alive with the United States and win a mutual US concession. Experts say the North is likely to want an explanation of the end of the Korean War as part of US security guarantees.
A ceasefire that ended the Korean War still needs to be replaced by a peace treaty that puts the peninsula into a state of technical warfare. North Korea has steadfastly argued that its nuclear weapons should neutralize alleged US plans to attack.
Efforts to recover in North Korea have been fraught with political and other obstacles since the end of the war. Between 1990 and 1994, North Korea unilaterally handed over 208 caskets to the United States, which contained well over 208 people, despite the fact that the forensic team had set up 181 identities.
A series of US-North Korean reconstruction efforts called "joint field activities" between 1996 and 2005 revealed 229 caskets of remains, of which 153 were identified, according to the Pentagon.
Kim Yong-Ho reported from Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Associated Press authors Hyung-jin Kim of Seoul and Robert Burns of Washington have contributed to this report.
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