Decades after the end of the Korean War in 1953, the remains of dozens of presumed U.S. war dead began their journey home following a repatriation ceremony in South Korea on Wednesday.
North Korea handed over the remains in 55 boxes last week and allowed a U.S. military transport plane to move them to the U.S. Osan Air Base near Seoul in South Korea.
The remains are headed later Wednesday to a lab in Hawaii run by the military agency that identifies missing servicemen and women from past conflicts.
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Hundreds of U.S. and South Korean troops gathered at a hanger at the Osan base for the repatriation ceremony, which included a silent tribute, a rifle salute and the playing of the U.S. and South Korean national anthems and dirges in front of the U.N. flag-covered metal cases containing the remains.
“For the warrior, this is a cherished duty, a commitment made to one another before going into battle, and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next,” Vincent Brooks, chief of the U.S. military in South Korea, said in a speech. “This is a solemn reminder that our work is not complete until all have been accounted for, no matter how long it takes to do so.”
The remains were then moved in gray vans to an airfield where U.S. and South Korean soldiers loaded them one by one into two transport planes. Four U.S. fighter jets flew low in a tribute.
Later Wednesday, the transport planes left for Hawaii, where the remains will undergo an in-depth forensic analysis, in some cases using mitochondrial DNA profiles, at a Defense Department laboratory to establish identifications. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the return of the 55 boxes was a positive step but not a guarantee that the bones are American.
A U.S. defense official said Tuesday that it probably will take months if not years to fully determine individual identities from the remains. The official, who discussed previously undisclosed aspects of the remains issue on condition of anonymity, also said North Korea provided a single military dog tag along with the remains. The official did not know details about the single dog tag, including the name on it or whether it was even that of an American military member.
Vice President Mike Pence, the son of a Korean War veteran, is to fly to Hawaii for what the military calls an “honorable carry ceremony” marking the arrival of the remains on American soil.
The repatriation is a breakthrough in a long-stalled U.S. effort to obtain war remains from North Korea. About 7,700 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, and 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea.
“The remains received from North Korea are being handled with the utmost care and respect by professional historians, forensic scientists, uniformed personnel and government officials,” the U.S.-led U.N. Command said in a statement. It said it “never leaves troops behind, living or deceased, and will continue the mission of repatriation until every service member returns home.”
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The bones’ return was part of an agreement reached during a June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump thanked Kim for the return.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.