Following June’s historic Singapore summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, the remains of what is believed to be US soldiers from the Korean War have been returned to the USA. DNA tests will now be performed to help identify the troops.
“Once we start DNA sampling next week, under normal circumstances it will take 6 months to obtain the first results”, Jennie Jin, director of the Korean War Project, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. “And then the identification begins. That could take several months, although that varies.”
The anthropologist has said that some 7700 US soldiers remain unaccounted for from the conflict, which lasted from 1950–1953. About 5300 of these remains are believed to be in North Korea.
In the 1990s, 208 boxes were transferred to the USA containing the remains of 400 individuals, and more were received as recently as 2005. In this recent goodwill gesture, North Korea sent 55 boxes, but it is still unclear how many soldiers’ remains are included. The US team of scientists must therefore work diligently to identify the remains and determine the number of soldiers.
“The North Koreans gave us data on where the remains were found, what each box contains, including the number of artifacts”, Jin told Yonhap. “Based on that, my team in Hawaii is drawing up an inventory to be entered into a database this week.”
DNA testing process
Despite CSI and other popular crime shows suggesting that DNA testing and identification can be done within a matter of hours, the process is actually much more complex. All humans are 99% genetically similar. The remaining 1% of genes that are different make us unique and explains the variations in characteristics, such as colour of hair, eyes and skin. Just because two DNA samples do not match, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t from the same individual. Scientists have to test multiple genetic markers. The forensic DNA tests being conducted by the Korean War Project will generally test 6–10 markers, which makes the results far more accurate but also requires more time.
Until the DNA testing is complete, the identities and origins of the remains will be open to speculation. The soldiers could belong to any of the 16 other UN member countries that fought alongside the USA.
“We don’t know who’s in those boxes”, said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “They could go to Australia. They have missing, France has missing…. There’s a whole lot of us. So this is an international effort to bring closure for those families.”
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