Disinterring Korean War Unknowns

disinterring korean war unknowns

In 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began disinterring 652 sets of unknown remains associated with the Korean War that had been buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), better known as the Punchbowl. The unknown remains in question were recovered from the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) in the 1950s and 1960s, and were buried as unknowns after they could not be identified by the traditional forensic processes available at the time

Given the large number of remains, the plan is to disinter the remains in seven phases over the next five to seven years. The phases are based on the geographic region where the remains were recovered and other criteria that provides sequential logic to this complex identification process. Conducting the disinterments in this manner is more efficient and effective as it allows researchers and scientists to focus on sets of individuals with similar history and circumstances of loss. As the remains are identified in this method, it will reduce the potential candidates for subsequent phases, and thereby provide quicker identifications

Each of the seven phases will include unknowns recovered from North and South Korea. The phases are also balanced between sets of remains that are more complete, those that are made up of fewer remains, remains that are not well preserved, or those that have been commingled with other unknowns. The latter group will require more time and resources to identify. DPAA will work with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System–Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFMES-AFDIL) to identify the remains, and NMCP will further refine the exhumation schedule within each phase to balance cases that need additional resources or scheduling due to capacity or logistical considerations

As a result of this effort, the Department will no longer divert resources to trying to work and address individual requests on a by-case basis, a process that had proven both inefficient and frustrating for families, because the remains more often than not turned out to be someone other than their loved one. However, as each unknown is analyzed for identification, all Family Reference Sample (FRS) data on file will be compared against the unknown DNA sample, therefore providing identification of individuals who may have been thought to be in later phases.

U.S. service members assigned to the DPAA participate in a disinterment ceremony held at the NMCP, Honolulu, Hawaii, Dec. 17, 2018. The ceremony was part of DPAA’s efforts to disinter the remains of unknown service members lost during the Korean war. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Seth Coulter)
Jim Horton, Director, Punchbowl NMCP, speaks to personnel assigned to the DPAA and distinguished visitors prior to a disinterment ceremony held at the NMCP, Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 8th, 2019. The ceremony was part of DPAA’s efforts to disinter the remains of unknown service members lost during the Korean war. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Seth Coulter)
U.S. service members assigned to the DPAA participate in a disinterment ceremony held at the NMCP, Honolulu, Hawaii, Dec. 17, 2018. The ceremony was part of DPAA’s efforts to disinter the remains of unknown service members lost during the Korean war. DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel to their families and the nation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Seth Coulter)
U.S. service members assigned to the DPAA participate in a disinterment ceremony held at the NMCP, Honolulu, Nov. 5, 2018. The ceremony was part of DPAA’s efforts to disinter the remains of unknown service members lost during the Korean War. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Lloyd Villanueva)
Emily Wilson, a forensic anthropologist with the DPAA, accessions disinterred remains of a service member lost during the Korean War at DPAA's laboratory facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Jan. 7, 2019. Disinterred remains are often still wrapped in wool blanket bundles when removed from the caskets. Remains are prepared, cleaned, and dried before laboratory analysis begins. (DoD photo by Paul Emanovsky)
Star Lavin, a laboratory technician with the DPAA, calibrates a Computerized Tomography (CT) machine at DPPA's laboratory facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on October 15, 2018. DPAA scientists use radiographic comparison techniques to overcome challenges posed by damaged DNA from Korean War remains. (DoD photo by Dean Karamehmedovic)
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