Department of Defense Press Briefing on the Overall Process for Identifying the Remains of Fallen Service Members from the Korean War
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Director Kelly K. McKeague; Chief Scientist Dr. John E. Byrd
STAFF: It's never this quiet, so I guess I better go ahead and break the silence then. Well good afternoon everybody. My name is Colonel Rob Manning, I'm the director of Press Operations here at the Department of Defense.
I want to thank you for joining us today for a brief by Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA leadership on the return of fallen service members from North Korea. They will discuss the overall process for identifying the remains of fallen service members.
We'll be joined today in person by Mr. Kelly McKeague, who is the director for DPAA and then via VTC by Dr. John E. Byrd, the director for DPAA Laboratories, and their bios can be found on the DPAA website at dpaa.mil or in your press packets, and -- and we can provide that to you.
Mr. McKeague will be -- will begin today's news conference with a brief opening statement, and then we'll open it up for your questions. During the Q&A portion obviously please state your name and outlet and please turn all electronic devices to the silent mode. We've got the wi-fi password in the monitor to the back of the room. And so to your questions, that's all I have. We'll get started here very -- very shortly.
Q: (off mic)?
STAFF: That is B-Y-R-D, Dr. John E. Byrd, B-Y-R-D. And then Mr. Kelly McKeague is Kelly, K-E-L-L-Y, McKeague, M-C -- little C -- K-E-A-G-U-E.
Q: (off mic)?
STAFF: Yeah, M -- capital M, little C, capital K and then E-A-G-U-E, pronounced McKeague. OK?
Q: (off mic)?
STAFF: OK, absolutely. Again, welcome, appreciate your patience, we'll get started shortly.
POW/MIA ACCOUNTING AGENCY DIRECTOR KELLY K. MCKEAGUE: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. It's a privilege to be with you this afternoon. Yesterday's arrival of the remains of unreturned Korean War veterans in Hawaii was the manifestation of the commitment secured by President Trump and pledged by Chairman Kim at the Singapore Summit.
Understandably, reactions from the families of the 7,700 still missing from the Korean War is palpable, because this is an opportunity for more of them to get long-sought answers. The remains of those 55 cases have been fully assessed into our laboratory and are already undergoing forensic analyses by Dr. John Byrd and his scientific team.
We are guardedly optimistic that this repatriation is the first step of others to account for our missing from the Korean War. The second aspect of the commitment reached in Singapore was the recovery of remains in North Korea.
It was encouraging that last month the DPRK re-affirmed meeting that commitment to Secretary Pompeo. So we are working with the Department of Defense, State Department and National Security Council partners on how those next steps might transpire.
But our mission to search for, find and account for missing Department of Defense personnel from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom is not one that is limited to the Korean peninsula. Today, 226 DPAA personnel and private partners are deployed in nine nations throughout the world, and tomorrow, 41 more leave for Vietnam.
Our mission is global in scope, and with over 82,000 still unaccounted for, of which we estimate 34,000 are recoverable, the numbers are daunting. But the numbers are more than just figures. Each has a unique story with memories that transcend decades of time and generations, and a loss that leaves enduring pain.
Next week here in Arlington, 764 Korean War and Cold War families will gather for an annual meeting to receive updates on their loved one's case. The profound impact of missing Americans to their families is exactly what makes these endeavors humanitarian, which is long acknowledged by the 45 nations that we work with.
Former enemies like Vietnam use cooperation on the POW/MIA accounting mission as a bridge to normalization and countries where relationships with the United States may be tense, like China and Russia, view POW/MIA cooperation as their humanitarian duty.
Inherent to the POW/MIA mission is the fulfillment of a promise made to the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice and are missing and of course to their families. But this mission also serves as a marker for veterans whose comrades did not return, as well as to those who currently serve in uniform today: that no one will be left behind. We in DPAA are deeply privileged to work daily whether in his -- his -- whether in a historical archive, in a Laotian jungle, or in our laboratory to achieve the fullest possible accounting for America's unreturned heroes, and provide some solace to their grieving families.
I welcome your questions.
STAFF: Bob Burns, please?
Q: Thanks. Bob Burns of The Associated Press.
I'm a little unclear on some aspects of what it is you believe are in those 55 cases, just for starters. I have a number of questions along that line. What, if anything, do the North Koreans say are in those cases? Did they give you a number, or an approximate number of individuals who may be represented there? And why 55? I mean, does -- does that have any relationship to the number of people that may be there? And one last thing: while they were in Osan, you gave them a preliminary look, I believe, by your -- some of your people. What did you learn, what did they learn from having that preliminary look to give you some confidence that these are all or mostly Americans?
MR. MCKEAGUE: So Bob, I'll let Dr. Byrd handle that, but John Byrd was in Wonsan, North Korea, where he conducted a preliminary review, along with three anthropologists, as well as conducting the deeper field forensic review in Seoul.
DR. JOHN E. BYRD: Yes, sir. Well, in -- in the boxes are human remains. That was confirmed in Wonsan before we actually loaded the boxes onto the C-17 to return to Osan. Looking at the human remains in Wonsan, it was just a cursory inspection, and so we didn't immediately glean information at first glance. But the North Korean officials that we spoke to were very forthcoming and candid with us, and a couple of things they told us.
First, these were remains believed to be American from the Korean War. They also, though, were clear with us that they couldn't be sure how many individuals were represented in each box. And it -- it's a little bit of a -- a complicated scientific process to determine how many individuals you have when you have skeletal remains that are often fragmented, and in some cases, not well preserved. And so that was not an unreasonable candid supposition on their part, that they weren't sure how many individual are represented in the 55 boxes.
When we got back to Osan, we were able to lay everything out and look at it in more detail. And what we saw were remains that were consistent with what we have found from Korean War recoveries we've done over the years, and we found remains that were consistent with being Americans. We -- we have remains that looked to have been in a state of preservation consistent with coming from the Korean War era. The material evidence found with the remains was consistent with U.S. military-issue equipment from the Korean War, and also was in a state of preservation consistent with having come from Korean War battlefield sites.
And so you can sum all that up to say that everything we saw was consistent with these remains, indeed, being from the Korean War, and consistent with these remains being good candidates to be missing Americans from the Korean War.
STAFF: (off mic)
Q: A quick -- a quick follow-up from Bob Burns.
Did the North Koreans tell you when and where they recovered any of those remains, or all of the remains?
MR. MCKEAGUE: There was some -- some information provided on their recovery efforts, but it's very cursory. We -- we got a short bit, a little paragraph of information to go with each box. And so we haven't had a chance to really analyze that in detail yet. But the -- the most important information that we were interested in was the general location that the remains in the box came from, and that's the most important thing to us.
Q: And what was the answer? Where did they come from?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Well, they gave us kind of -- we have village-level information, is the way I would describe it. Typically, we have a village name, and over the years, with the other unilateral turnovers we've received from North Korea, we've been able to determine where each of the villages are, and associate the villages to our loss incidents, which mostly are major battles, or in some cases, POW camps.
STAFF: (inaudible) Tara?
Q: Thank you for doing this. Tara Copp with Military Times. Just to follow on Bob's questions, can you tell us what villages some of those boxes came from, some of the names of the villages? And did the North Koreans give you any indication of how long the remains had been stored, or how they had been kept? Has it been years? Has it -- were they just recovered? And then I have a few follow-ups.
DR. BYRD: Yeah, the -- you're -- you're asking me to remember some specific details out of a -- a lot of information they provided us. And as I've mentioned, we're still now just beginning to analyze the information.
But what I can tell you, just from -- from my recollection from -- from Wonsan is that a lot of the boxes came from a -- a village called Sinhung-Ri, which is in the vicinity of the -- the Chung Jin, or Chosin Reservoir. And we have received unilateral turnovers in the past from North Korea from -- with that same village name, and we have found that what we got in the past from North Korea with that village name association was, indeed, associated to losses from the Chosin, or Chung Jin Reservoir area.
Q: And thank you that -- for that. Could you by any chance spell the name of the village?
DR. BYRD: Well, I'll give you an Americanized spelling. We have the -- the North Koreans provided us information in -- in Korean, and of course, we then translate that. But the spelling that I would use for Sinhung-Ri is S-I-N-H-U-N-G-dash-R-I.
Q: And you said that you had previously recovered -- or been able to recover remains from this same area? Was it a -- a POW camp, or are these battlefield remains?
DR. BYRD: Well, I -- I had mentioned, we received unilateral turnovers from North Korea in the early 1990s with that village name association, and then we also have done recovery operations in the vicinity of that village between 1996 and 2005. And so we -- we have quite a bit of knowledge of -- of the lay of the land in that area, if you will, but the -- these are remains associated with the battle, the famous battle known as Chosin Reservoir from the Fall of 1950.
Q: Thank you.
MR. MCKEAGUE: Tara, to follow up, for five years in the early '90s, the North Koreans unilaterally turned over 208 boxes. And then as John mentioned, for 10 years we operated jointly with the North Koreans in North Korea on joint operations.
Q: In the same area? In that same vicinity?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Yes.
Q: Hi, sir. I'm Tom Squitieri with Fox Media News. I have a follow-up to what you said, doctor, and then an independent question.
My follow-up was, you mentioned that the remains and cursory look are, quote, "consistent with being American." Could you just give me a little -- a little detail on what that means, that -- how -- being American, how you could look at the remains and deduce that.
And then I'll give my independent question after that, please. Thank you.
DR. BYRD: Well, if you think about the -- the players in the Korean War, you had -- the United States provided the largest contingent of -- of soldiers and service members from the U.N. side. But you also had the North Koreans, the Chinese, the South Korean army.
And so as an anthropologist, what we're looking at when we're trying to distinguish Americans from the others that are possible discoveries on a battlefield in Korea, is we're looking at indications of ancestry, for example. European and African ancestry is a good indicator that this could be an American, not -- not Chinese or North Korean.
But we also have a lot of Asian-Americans who are missing from the Korean War. And so we don't assume that if we see characteristics that indicate Asian ancestry, that it's not an American.
But when you do see remains that have indications that they could be a person of European or African ancestry, then being an American is -- is a good first bet. And so we -- we look at that from the standpoint of skeletal morphology, the size and shapes of the bones, things of that nature.
Q: Thanks. And my independent question to either of you gentlemen is, is there a -- a like a -- my word -- a library of DNA samples or any other kind of indicators from families that are waiting to hear for remains, to make the process down the road somewhat quicker or more efficient? In other words, if -- if I had a -- a brother who was missing in Korea, would you have gotten a DNA sample or something like that?
MR. MCKEAGUE: For the Korean War? We have on file -- 92 percent of the losses have a family reference sample on file. For Vietnam, it's about 87 percent. Unfortunately, for World War II, which was recently added by Congress to the Department of Defense in 2010, we only have 4 percent of the family DNA samples on file.
So, Tom, you hit the nail on the head. Obviously we're in a much better place with the Korean War families, given 92 percent. But also, as Jon could mention further and elaborate on, they utilize multiple lines of evidence.
So if we have chest x-rays that the service member took when they entered the service, that's an indicator for an analytical look. If we have dental records, that's what we call the holy grail in terms of the line of evidence. That's almost a slam-dunk. And so, again, using these multiple lines of effort of which DNA is one, we can then establish an association with a missing service member.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Tom Watkins, Agence France-Presse. I was wondering if you have an estimation about how many sets of remains the North Koreans still have. I think you mentioned 7,700 still missing. The repatriation, I -- it -- it seems like a very small number remaining. Like, what -- why is it such a small number and how many do you think the North Koreans are holding on and why do you think they're returning them in this kind of piecemeal fashion?
MR. MCKEAGUE: We're not sure but for the five years in the early '90s when they unilaterally turned over remains, the largest in any one given year was 33. So yesterday represented a high-water mark, if you want to use a -- do a comparative analysis.
We're not sure why the number. We're also not sure how many they do possess. We do know that, over the years, whether it's an agricultural project, a road being built or what have you, that the likelihood of recovering remains is fairly high. And, again, it's one that none of us have been able to get a definitive answer from as to how many they do possess.
Q: OK. And did -- and just to follow up. Do you know -- do you have any idea how long the boxes of bits returned of veterans have been stored by the North Koreans? And what conditions have they been stored in?
DR. BYRD: I -- I would have to say I -- I don't know. It's -- it's -- at this point at least, there's no way to tell. Sorry.
Q: (Bob Burns) Could I have a follow-up to Tom's, I’m sorry -- to Tom's question? There, just on the point about -- they gave 55, you don't know how many they have. Did they say or did they not say that "This is all we have"?
MR. MCKEAGUE: They have not.
Q: Did they explain why they gave this number? OK.
Q: (inaudible) from (inaudible) News. I had one question, actually two questions. First of all, if you could tell us more or less how long it may -- may take, the whole process to identify these remains. And also I want to know, because I believe the DPAA has already, like, around 200 remains are waiting to be identified. Will these remains go first on the list, or will go -- I mean, or will wait...
DR. BYRD: It's a priority.
Q: ... for the previous ones to be identified?
DR. BYRD: Well, it's a -- it's not a linear process, I guess would be my first answer. That it's not an either-or. Either we're going to do these or we're going to do others.
And it's also not the case that we have 200 remains waiting to be analyzed. We actually are working on quite a number of cases, far larger than 200. We have over a thousand active cases on any given day, from World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.
And these are all being pursued very aggressively, chasing the multiple lines of evidence that Mr. McKeague mentioned.
For the Korean War, we have a -- a very sophisticated process for addressing these cases that involves DNA testing on the front side. And so what will happen with these remains that just came in, right away, will be -- they'll be sampled for DNA and the DNA samples will -- will be sent to the Armed Forces' DNA Identification Lab in Dover, Delaware. That's AFDIL.
All of the Korean War remains get processed for mitochondrial DNA tests first. But AFDIL also pursues autosomal STR DNA testing and Y-chromosome STR testing with remains. That'd be two different nuclear DNA tests as well for Korean War cases.
All of the DNA results that are obtained go into what we call our mass comparison. And -- and what this involves is, all of our Korean War cases, every sample we've taken from them goes into a single database.
And periodically, that database undergoes what we call the mass comparison, and this is when every sample from our Korean War samples gets compared to every other sample and every sample gets compared to all of the families' reference samples.
And that's approximately 8,000 families represented by DNA reference sample. And so this mass comparison involves many millions of pair wise comparisons run as a singular operation, and this is done periodically as we get matches.
We get bones that match each other and we get sets of bones that match families' references. We then pursue those for possible identification, and so after that lengthy explanation let me come back to the 55 boxes. They'll be sampled for DNA in the upcoming weeks and AFDIL will receive those samples and process them and they'll be added into the mass comparison.
Where we have matches -- compelling matches with DNA, we will get a very strong lead and be able to pursue identifications quickly. In other cases where we don't find compelling matches right away, it could be months or it could even be a few years before we're able to narrow down the identity.
In the boxes, if we have teeth -- for -- especially teeth with dental restorations, we will immediately begin comparing those to dental records. With our dental records, we have them all databased and our dentists are able to run searches against the database of the missing persons to see if they can quickly find good matches, compelling matches with dental work.
And then Mr. McKeague also mentioned that we use chest radiographs -- we have chest radiographs for about three quarters of our Korean War missing on file, and we have developed computer applications for searching against those radiographs if need be.
And so in the cases where we have the chest bones present, that would be visible in these radiographs, we can pursue that method, as well. Now the dental and chest radiograph methods are -- are done very rapidly. And so those are -- are -- are quick analytical methods that we can use that either lead us to an identity or give us a hypothesis as to who it may be that we can then test with the DNA results.
And so I guess in my summary back to that would be, we're going to begin DNA sampling immediately. Every DNA sample from the 55 boxes, when the results come in, they'll go into the mass comparison. Any teeth that are in the box will be immediately looked at by our dentists and where we have bones that can lend themselves toward the chest radiograph analysis, that will also be done immediately.
But I can't tell you that we could get -- we expect a -- an easy identification in a week, nor can I tell you that they'll all be done in five years. And it's not a linear process, these -- these remains won't be analyzed instead of some other set of remains.
They're all going to go into our collective effort.
MR. MCKEAGUE: I might add our (inaudible) is still making identification from the unilateral remains from the early '90s, as well as the 10 years of field operations, one being recently made as the -- this past May.
Q: You mentioned U.S. military equipment was recovered. Can you describe more specifically what you recovered and any other kind of personal effects, like identification cards or maybe a name tape on a uniform?
DR. BYRD: Yeah, the -- there was -- there were several boxes that had what we call material evidence -- this would be artifacts in them. The overwhelming majority of that material evidence that I saw was typical of what we recover off battlefields, things like boots, canteens, buttons, buckles, that kind of stuff, uniform items.
The only item that I would -- that I saw that I would classify as an identification media would be one identification tag. And with that one identification tag, we notified the -- the family very quickly after we got the name from the identification tag.
And so the family is aware of the fact that we did receive one identification tag. But throughout the other material evidence so far -- and we're only now beginning to -- to get it all laid out to look at more carefully. I -- I don't recall seeing any other personal effects.
Q: And was there anything else in writing besides the location where the remains were returned from?
DR. BYRD: The North Koreans, as I mentioned, provide about a -- roughly a paragraph of information that goes with each box, and that information, just from our cursory look -- and it will be translated and analyzed more carefully in the upcoming weeks.
But from my cursory look at it, it's -- the most valuable aspect of that paragraph of information is the locational data.
Q: Thanks, Colonel. Ryan Browne with CNN. I have a question -- you mentioned the on the ground team that has gone to North Korea in the past. Given the current environment and some of the instances where North Korea has taken U.S. citizens prisoner, what kind of security assurances would you need to go back to North Korea to resume that kind of field work right now?
MR. MCKEAGUE: We believe one of our scientists that conducted some of these field investigations and excavations in North Korea. Obviously personnel security is a huge component in any negotiations, no matter what country we operate in, and our personnel's security is something that we take seriously.
So that will be part of any dialogue -- future dialogue that might occur with the North Koreans. John, could you speak to your experiences during the 1996 through '05?
DR. BYRD: Yes -- yes sir, I -- I did numerous missions in North Korea as a forensic anthropologist, mostly to the Kusan and Kujang areas that related to the November 1950 battles in those areas. And you know it was a -- I would say a -- a slightly stiff relationship, but professional and that we -- we went in and operated out of base camps.
We excavated a lot of sites over those years, we recovered a lot of remains and brought them back. We've identified a lot of the remains that we've recovered during those years, and so looking back on it I would say that it was challenging, but very successful.
MR. MCKEAGUE: And because -- because the mission is considered humanitarian in nature, our teams do not deploy -- our military teams do not deploy in uniform, they carry no weapons and the host nation recognizes it as a humanitarian endeavor, and one that they want to cooperate with the United States on, as I mentioned.
Q: So you would be willing to return to North Korea under those same arrangements that have been previously, right away, if asked?
DR. BYRD: I'm sorry, is that for me?
Q: Yeah, did you ever feel threatened or in danger?
DR. BYRD: Oh, did I when I was in North Korea? No, not seriously. I mean, I think that the -- when you think of the -- the risk you take doing those kinds of field operations, really the -- the greatest threat to your person is -- is -- are things like traffic accidents and the kind of mundane risks that -- that we take all the time when we operate in foreign countries. But I would go back in an instant if we were asked to.
MR. MCKEAGUE: But in the 10 years that we operated in North Korea, each year the terms and conditions would be renegotiated with the North Koreans. And that's what we would expect, should we be allowed to do so.
Q: So about the field operations -- Secretary Mattis mentioned about these -- where you're going to next spring, is that through field workers. If -- if they do that, did North Korea ask the United States the cost of repatriations anyway?
MR. MCKEAGUE: So there are no costs associated with this particular repatriation, none whatsoever; no caveats, no conditions set. I mean, it really is a fulfillment of the pledge that Chairman Kim made to President Trump in Singapore.
But part of that commitment was also a recovery aspect. And we view that through the prism of needing to do, conduct joint field operations with the North Koreans. None of that had been put into motion as of yet.
But we fully expect, given the fact that the North Koreans reaffirmed that commitment to Secretary Pompeo last month, we fully expect that there might be an environment in which case they would be open to sitting down to negotiate just as we did in the mid-2000s.
Q: But North Korea is demanding that, you know, the sanctions be lift on conditions that they return the bodies -- I mean, return the remains. So, it's kind of they wanted some preconditions to do so, you know. Then last, why are they going to send 55 remains this time? Because President Trump mentioned the 200 remains, but how long will it take this 200 remains?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Right. As I mentioned earlier, we do not have confirmation as to a definitive number that the North Koreans are holding. There may be more, we just don't know. But again, there are no conditions set, whether it be sanctions relief or what have you, on these 55.
And so again, we're working with State Department, with our DOD partners as well as the National Security Council in what does the next step look like.
Q: May I ask one follow-on on the dog tag identification? Would you be able to share with us the name on that dog tag or talk just a little but about what the family said -- being able to notify a family who's been waiting for this for so long?
MR. MCKEAGUE: It's our policy not to release that in advance of an identification. Those two family members that were notified that their loved one's dog tag was returned will be at the annual meeting next week. Upon being presented with that dog tag, and we do intend to do that, they may be open to discussing it with the media.
Q: You're going to give them the dog tag?
MR. MCKEAGUE: We are.
Q: Sir, just to -- sorry, to follow on that, one more thing. I apologize. I want to ask a question. Telling a person you found a dog tag, does that unrealistically raise hopes that the remains are there?
MR. MCKEAGUE: No. We made clear that -- so the Army Casualty Office is the one that notifies the families. And they make it very clear upfront that there are no way that we even associate that this dog tag belongs to any of the remains in those 55 cases that the North Koreans turned over.
And it's no different than material evidence that we find in a recovery mission today, is that until we're able to connect definitively through these multiple lines of evidence, we won't make that association. And by the way, it's not just one line of evidence that leads to an identification, it's multiple lines of evidence among the seven.
Q: Let me ask to be sure, one or two identification tags have been found?
MR. MCKEAGUE: One, but two family members.
Q: Oh, OK. Sorry. Thank you so much.
MR. MCKEAGUE: (off mic)
Q: A couple of questions; one, did you find anything in all of this that surprised you in terms of what you knew about remains in North Korea and maybe -- did anything come back that you went, oh, we -- you know didn't expect that, that didn't match with perhaps what your expectations were?
My other question is just to go back one more time, if I recall, Secretary Rumsfeld stopped missions into North Korea somewhere around 2005 because at that time he had security concerns about the missions. So given that you renegotiate all the time and when you sit down now to renegotiate knowing there were -- there were in fact security concerns, what do you need to see specifically from the North Koreans on their side to assure you that this will be safe for your people but also that it'll be worth it to renegotiate?
MR. MCKEAGUE: So, John, I'll handle the second one and come back to you for the first part of Barbara's question. So, Barbara, really it came down in 2005, the secession of operations was due to several factors, particularly North Korean behavior on the international stage, not meeting their commitments. I'm not sure at that time whether it was a missile launch or nuclear activity, but that was the impetus behind the United States government deciding to suspend operations.
In addition, at the time, we were concerned about personnel security, as we always are. I'll let John speak to the fact, he may know. I wasn't there. So I'm not sure what led to -- but I do know that personnel security concerns were an issue in 2005 along with their behavior on the international stage.
Q: So what do you need to see, as director, this time around in an agreement to assure you it's safe, that there are no personnel security concerns anymore, and that it will be worth it for you to engage in this activity? What do ...
MR. MCKEAGUE: So, the Korean people's army would provide the security presence. That would have to be a factor. How many individuals will be there to protect our teams, to watch over them?
In terms of it being worth it, we believe it is worth it given the fact that there are over 5,300 still missing in North Korea. And given the battlefields, the former POW camps, we envision as we did in the 1996 through 2000 timeframe -- 2005 timeframe, that to -- not to be crass, but it was very lucrative in terms of finding these high concentrations of remains.
And the North Koreans, again, I think they knew where we wanted to operate, that would be part of the negotiations. And again, if we were allowed the opportunity, we would again seek those same areas where we believe a major part of our losses may be found.
Q: Areas that you already historically have identified as being potential areas where there will be -- perhaps, concentrations of remains?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Yes, and others such as former POW camps.
Q: And you would want to go to -- are there remains or rooms or -- of POW camps from the war still standing that you would think productive to go to?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Burial grounds.
Q: Burial grounds?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Yes.
MR. MCKEAGUE: Grave yards.
Q: Do you feel -- as you stand here today, do you feel comfortable that North Korea military forces can and would protect U.S. military personnel?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Yes, primarily because it is a humanitarian endeavor and one that they realize that is part of their -- this is an opportunity for them to again, be a responsible partner in the now international community.
Again, we work with 45 countries, some former enemies, and so again, you know, I use Vietnam as an exemplar. Here we are several years after the Vietnam War, hostilities ended, and as Vietnam's coming to the United States saying we understand that cooperation on this issue will lead and help in the normalization process.
And today, the relationship can be characterized by peace, stability, security and prosperity. So that's a tremendous exemplar and by the way, those -- that cooperation with the United States began in 1985 and then became literally an annually sustained operation in 1988.
Q: What were the personnel concerns if the other gentlemen could respond in 2005?
DR. BYRD: OK, I -- I was on that last mission in 2005 and there was no direct provocation, there was no threat to us from the North Korean soldiers or anyone else on the mission.
The problems had to do with our ability to manage risk. When we operate overseas, we have a very high standard for safety. And that high standard for safety includes communications, the ability to execute a medevac plan if somebody's injured, and things of that nature.
Sometimes when we're working in foreign countries, the host nations are surprised at the level at which we execute our risk mitigation and safety plans. And back in 2005, that's where our problems were.
We didn't feel that our ability on the ground to execute communications and medevac plans and things of that nature were good enough to meet our standards, our normal standards.
Q: First question about whether or not there were anything that surprised you in the remains from these 55 cases or something that maybe matched your expectations?
DR. BYRD: Yes, I'll preface my answer by -- by saying that I've worked extensively with the remains from the early 1990's unilateral turnovers. I've done recoveries in North and South Korea many times, too many times to count now.
And I've been deeply involved in working with our -- all of our Korean war remains in the laboratory and so all that said, I would say absolutely nothing surprised me that -- that we got in the 55 boxes from Wonsan.
It was exactly what I expected to see in a condition that I expected to see it in. You know, I would add that maybe if anything surprised me, it was the -- the great care that the North Koreans, the KPA soldiers took in packaging and preparing those remains to be handed over to us.
They had been very carefully packaged with padding and packaging that was done to I think a very high standard. And -- and -- and I think that surprised me a little bit that they put that kind of care into the effort.
But that would be it.
Q: Hi, thanks again for doing this briefing, really appreciate it. There were extensive talks at the DMZ about the repatriation of remains. Can you give us some insight into what those discussions -- how they related to this transfer?
Did you anticipate that they would -- that they offer up 55? And I believe that at some of the earlier reporting had mentioned that there were -- the U.S. had prepared 200 cases for as many as that possible -- possibility of number of remains.
Were any of those cases used in this transfer and then I have an additional question.
MR. MCKEAGUE: In accordance with the armistice signed after hostilities ended, the United Nations command is responsible for any and all discussions and even the repatriation of remains.
And so the United Nations command did a beautiful job sitting down with North Koreans at both the colonel and general officer level. It was then that the North Koreans asked for 55 boxes to be transferred to them, which is where the number came from.
Now to ensure that we were prepared for a number that we were not aware of, the United Nations command did preposition 200 boxes in the DMZ area in advance of those face to face dialogue.
Q: And -- and so 55 of these were some of those 200 that never (inaudible).
MR. MCKEAGUE: That was just prepositioned within the DMZ.
Q: And so how far in advance then was this planned, this turnover since those talks? Is it in the last week, the last two weeks, I mean at what point did you get notification (inaudible).
MR. MCKEAGUE: So the 55 commitment was made on July 15 and we immediately began sending our teams -- so we sent four scientists as well as a forensic photographer forward to work side by side with the United Nations command personnel in planning for the repatriation in Wonsan, North Korea as you saw last week.
Q: And the third question I had is if I recall, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir involved mainly Marines. Is -- is that the case here that these individuals may turn out to be mostly Marines and how many individuals are missing from that particular battle?
DR. BYRD: Well I would say that the -- the Battle at Jhangjin actually was Army and Marines. The Army was on the east side and the Marines were on the west side. We have missing soldiers and missing Marines.
But the village name that I mentioned was from the east side, and that's where the Army was.
Q: (Inaudible) Washington Examiner. Could you be more specific of when was the last time that the North Koreans turned over remains in this state in boxes and secondly, what is their track record for reliability?
Have they turned over boxes of remains like this in the past that turned out not to be what they said they were?
MR. MCKEAGUE: So from 1990 through 1994 they turned over 208 boxes. The largest being 33 in a given year. The last time they unilaterally turned over remains was in 2007 where they turned over six boxes to Secretary Principi and Governor Richardson.
And out of those six boxes, seven identifications have been made. Of the 208 that were turned over in the early '90s along with the 10 years of field operation, we've identified 80 percent of the U.S. service members that were part of the unilateral turnover as well as the joint recovery.
Q: (Inaudible) from the Wall Street Journal. Can you give us a sense given the material evidence you have and your review of the cases so far an approximate number of remains that you think might be in the (inaudible) or a range of how many you think there could be in the 55 cases based on your preliminary assessment?
DR. BYRD: Well I can't give you a number. At this point it's too early to tell. But what you can expect is that you should not assume that one box is one person. One box you might think is at least one person, but there's many possibilities. For example, one person might be in two different boxes. So it's better to wait until we do this early round of DNA testing, and that will give us a more accurate look at how many individuals.
And then we'll combine the DNA results with our anthropological analyses and dental analyses, and that will refine the estimate even more. But it's a -- it's a pretty difficult scientific process in and of itself to actually determine how many individuals accurately.
And so there's a -- a number of different methods that will be brought to bear on that problem in the upcoming months.
Q: Is there even a range that you're looking at as you go over these cases based on what you've seen? Do you think it could be a few as this or as many -- I mean based on what you've seen, particularly with the material evidence?
DR. BYRD: I don't have a -- a -- a grounded estimate to give you yet, it's just too early.
Q: Can you tell us how many staff are working on identifying these remains? How many -- how many personnel are part of this process?
DR. BYRD: Well the -- we have a dedicated project in the laboratory called the Korean War Project, and that project team is -- consists of five people currently, but when this unilateral turnover came up, we decided to expand the project.
So we're going to add four or five more people to that project in the upcoming weeks. So we're going to essentially double the size of the project team, and their job is to manage the DNA sampling. And then when AFDIL provides results back to us in the form of the mass comparison, their job is to take those results and then pursue those results in segregating out individuals and recommending individuals for identification.
Once the managers in the lab accept a recommendation for identification, then we have to assign the case to an independent scientist to write up reports and then the medical examiner -- one of our medical examiners here at DPAA will then review all of these reports and make a decision as to whether to make an ID or not.
And so there's actually quite a lot of people involved. But the core of -- of this work with these remains that have just come in will be done by this Korean War Project team.
Q: And you mentioned that many of them in the -- in this particular village were serving in the Army. Do you have an approximate number of how many in that particular village who are missing, and have you reached out actively to families from those particular villages where you think service members came from to start to sort of proactively collect DNA or whatever samples needed to make a positive identification?
DR. BYRD: Yeah, I -- I -- I guess I should just remind you that that -- that village name I gave you is only -- only one of many that were provided by the North Koreans. It just happens to be one that I remember and was already familiar with, and that's why I mentioned that one as an example.
But that -- that village name is from the east side of Chosin, and this is where we have a lot of Army missing and -- and we have DNA family reference samples from at least 90 percent of those missing persons from that particular battle space.
And so we feel pretty good about our ability to resolve these cases over time.
MR. MCKEAGUE: (Inaudible) the anthropologist in charge of the Korean War Project is Dr. Jenny Jin. Jenny's grandparents emigrated from North Korea to Seoul during the war, and here she is, a U.S. citizen charged with pulling together this nine person scientific team to again bring to fruition the identification of missing service members from the Korean War.
Q: What's her name, Admiral?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Jenny Jin, J-I-N. Talented anthropologist. Jin.
Q: Bob Burns from the Associated Press. I wanted to ask a clarifying question of Dr. Byrd. Early on, you said that these remains are consistent with being American. And just for the sake of accuracy, I want to see if I can -- would you say that that is without exception or in general?
Would it be accurate to say all of these remains that you were able to take a look at appear to be American, or -- do you see my point?
DR. BYRD: I do. I think the -- the -- the way you have to look at this is that there is a -- a range of completeness and a range in the state of preservation of the remains in all of these 55 boxes. And so in some cases there are, you know, complete or near complete bones that in size and shape I feel confident are quite likely American.
And then in other cases, there are bones that are very badly preserved and -- you know, and I can't say that it's an American to the exclusion of anyone else, but there's no reason to doubt it could be an American, given the context.
And so you have to think that it's -- there's a range of -- of states of preservation and completeness that, you know, gives us a range of things we can say about them in a cursory examination.
Q: Who are -- to characterize this, you know, comment about them appearing to be American. Would it be correct to say that most of the remains appear to be American, or just some of them?
DR. BYRD: Well, my impression is that as a group -- as a group of remains, if you look across the 55 boxes, they are consistent with what we see in the remains we know to be American from the Korean War that have come through this lab over the years.
Q: Do a quick follow up to that? You -- you mentioned the American assessment being based off -- and you mentioned Chinese, Korean forces south and north. Have there -- there are also allies that have missing -- still have missing service members, and I imagine it'd be more difficult off a cursory assessment to make a difference between American and some of the allies.
Are you -- is that something that is -- that you've ruled out or -- or looking at, or is that factoring into your assessment?
DR. BYRD: It's -- it factors into our analytical work, and so for example if you -- you have DNA test results, DNA can indicate what population in the world the individual likely came from. But you can't separate say a -- a British national from somebody like me who has British ancestry using that DNA approach.
And so yeah, that -- it does bring up an issue that's to be resolved. And so one of the things that we're pursuing is relationships with our allies. So, for example, with the Australians, the Australians have gone out and found family reference samples for their missing from the Korean War, and have included them now in our mass comparison that we do at AFDIL.
The British have also expressed interest in doing this and they are now actively seeking family reference samples for their missing soldiers from the Korean War.
And so, it's an issue that is -- must be considered, but when you look at the numbers of missing -- the numbers of missing from our allies is far smaller than the number of missing Americans. And so, while it is an issue to be dealt with and considered carefully in a laboratory, it's not a big problem for us in any sense of the word.
MR. MCKEAGUE: (Inaudible) techniques that we're really excited about is stabile isotope testing. And with stabile isotope testing, they're able to then pinpoint, given the isotope's oxygen and nitrogen, that these sets of remains may be emanating. They can pinpoint the geographical based upon the diet, the water drunk in your, both your adolescent years, as well as your early growing years. And that can differentiate very quickly and straight forward -- in a straight forward manner whether these are American or a Caucasian that was raised in British -- in Britain states.
STAFF: Time for one more question?
Q: So, can you talk about the (inaudible).
STAFF: (Inaudible) for a while.
Q: Oh, OK.
STAFF: We didn't hear any of it (inaudible).
MR. MCKEAGUE: Jon?
DR. BYRD: Yes -- oh, yes. With the isotope testing, I was just going to add that, not only is it useful for, say, separating a -- an American from a British, or Australian soldier. It -- it, really, is going to be essential for us in recognizing Asian-American service members and differentiating them from, say, our allies like South Korean soldiers. Over, that's it.
Q: Two things on -- on preservation that some were very well preserved and some were not, but that they came back to you in packaging that indicated the North Koreans took care in packaging them up. Was that packaging theirs or was that packing material part of what was included in the transfer of the cases, and provided to them?
DR. BYRD: It was all included with the cases that were provided to them, but it was -- it was very well done in terms of the way they packaged the material to transport it, and then hand over to us.
STAFF: Mr. McKeague for any closing comments.
MR. MCKEAGUE: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, again, for the opportunity to address you. I'll tell you this, the fact that the United States of America, vigorously, pursues this noble mission speaks volumes about our national psyche.
We say that it defines us as a nation, that here we are decades later, still searching for answers for individuals that paid the ultimate sacrifice. The fullest possible accounting of our MIAs is both a sacred obligation and a moral imperative.
It remains a high priority for the Department of Defense, not just in resources devoted to it, but also in the resolute commitment attached to it because those we send in harm's way will not be forgotten, and their families will receive resolution to their decades of uncertainty.
I can assure you that the men and women, both, military and civilian that are attached to this mission, 720 plus. I've never been associated with a more dedicated, talented, and passionate group of individuals.
Thank you, again.