North Korea remains 'likely to be American' - US agency

The remains of foreign soldiers returned by North Korea last week are likely to be American, an official at the US agency that deals with soldiers missing in action said on Wednesday.

Last week Pyongyang returned 55 cases of remains from the 1950-53 Korean War, in line with an agreement between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore in June.

The process of identification is likely to take several months at least, according to experts. But John Byrd, director of scientific analysis at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), said preliminary findings suggested that "they are likely to be American remains".

"The remains are consistent with remains we have recovered in North Korea... in the past," Byrd told reporters at the Osan US Air Base in South Korea. The cases have been kept there since Friday and will be flown to Hawaii for further forensic analysis.

"There was a single dog tag (US soldier's identity tag) provided with the remains. The family of that individual has been notified," he said.

"But I would caution... to keep in mind that it's not necessarily the case that the dog tag goes with the remains... in the box," he added, underscoring the challenges of identifying the recovered remains.

Offer clues

Former DPAA official Jeong Yang-seung, who previously worked on identifying US remains from the North, said it was unusual to locate dog tags during the search and recovery process.

"It's once in a blue moon that dog tags are recovered," Jeong, now professor of forensic anthropology at the Middle Tennessee State University, told AFP.

"I don't think North Korea is refusing to give dog tags when it has more but it probably doesn't have dog tags lying around," he said.

"So when they say that only one dog tag was provided, it's probably not to tease the US but rather that it was sent because it could offer clues to the remains."

More than 35 000 Americans were killed on the Korean Peninsula during the war and around 7 700 of them are still considered missing, including 5,300 in North Korea alone.

Between 1990 and 2005 229 sets of remains from the North were repatriated, but those operations were suspended when ties worsened over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

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