The Korean War was a bitter conflict which lasted from 1950-1953 and saw thousands of people killed, maimed or injured. Following the North Korean invasion of the South, this arm of the cold war between the West and the Soviet Union was bravely fought on the battlefields of the Korean Peninsula.
Nearly 70 years later and American President Donald Trump was able to secure the return of the remains of 55 servicemen who lost their lives in the war. However, due to a lack of dog tag identification, it’s unsure whether they are U.S. remains at all.
The Korean War was essentially an extension of the so-called ‘Cold War’ being waged at the time between the forces of Communism and those of Capitalism. While the North received support from China and the Soviet Union, South Korea got their support and backing from a U.S. coalition which included countries like the United Kingdom.
Despite the fact that the Cold War has all but ended, the conflict between North and South Korea is ongoing. While a cold peace has been the status quo for decades now, tensions between North and South have flared to the brink of war on a few occasions over the years. While North Korea has been displaying military might with ballistic missile tests and the like, President Donald Trump recently met with the North Korean leadership and negotiated a deal with them.
While the war has been over for the best part of 70 years, tens of U.S. and U.K. soldiers’ remains have been held by North Korea for years. As part of the Trump negotiations with the North, it was agreed that 55 sets of human remains would be returned for a proper burial back home. However, when those remains arrived recently, only one of the 55 bodies could be identified with dog tags.
Hard to Identify
According to John Byrd, director of scientific analysis at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the U.S. agency that deals with soldiers missing in action, it could take months to identify the remains from North Korea, due to the passage of time and the lack of dog tags. Byrd is confident that the remains are those of U.S. fallen soldiers but confirmed to the AP that they could include those of British soldiers too.
Many people commended President Trump for negotiating the return of the remains with North Korea. He also negotiated a cessation in ballistic missile testing as well as a halt to North Korea’s nuclear program. But for the families of the soldiers who have never been able to bury their dead, the U.S. aircraft which collected the remains from Kalma Airport on the outskirts of the North Korean city of Wonsan, this was something they have been hoping for for years.
The United Nations Command held an emotional ceremony at the airbase to mark the formal repatriation of the remains. The South Korean defense minister, Song Young-moo, stood alongside General Vincent Brooks, the commander of the UNC. Following that ceremony, the caskets containing the unidentified remains were flown to Pearl Harbor-Hickam military base in Hawaii for full forensic examinations.
According to Paul Cole, an expert on the recovery of soldiers missing in action, the remains within each casket are likely to be bone fragments belonging to different soldiers. At the same time, according to Chuck Prichard, director of public affairs for the Defense POW/MIA Personnel Accounting Agency, “Problems such as the inability to get DNA from bones and lack of a DNA reference sample from the family can be major stumbling blocks,” according to a report in The Telegraph.
The U.S. defense secretary, James Mattis, also spoke about the fact there are no guarantees that the remains belong to U.S. military personnel. “We don’t know who is in those boxes,” he said. “They could go to Australia. They have missing. France has missing. Americans have. There’s a whole lot of us. So this is an international effort to bring closure for those families.” But the return of the bodies has raised some difficult question in Britain regarding soldiers they lost during the conflict.
Britain lost 1,108 soldiers during the Korean War, with 366 bodies still listed as missing. Hundreds of families in Britain have tried for years to secure the return of their loved ones for a proper burial but to no avail. Now officials in the U.K. are asking whether British soldier’s remains could be among the 55 caskets recently repatriated to the U.S.
With the new developments the Trump administration has been able to advance with North Korea, officials in Britain are now asking relatives of soldiers who fell during the war to provide DNA samples so that any remains that are returned can be identified. But there are also British soldiers’ remains who the government know will never be returned as they are classified as “with no known grave” or “lost at sea or buried at sea.”
A recent letter written to Lord Alton of Liverpool who has been campaigning for years for the safe return of fallen soldiers’ remains, from Earl Howe from the Ministry of Defence, noted that officials had “recently concluded an exercise to cross-reference records in the U.K. and the British embassy in Seoul of those personnel with no known grave, to confirm the number of personnel whose remains might possibly be in North Korea.” The letter confirmed the suspected number of British soldiers still in North Korea.
While hundreds of British soldiers’ remains are yet to be identified or repatriated, Howe continued: “From a total of 301 U.K. service personnel with no known grave, I can now confirm the remains of 255 U.K. service personnel are believed to be in North Korea.” He added, “This represents 23 percent of the 1,129 service personnel who died as a result of the Korean War between 27 June 1950 and 27 July 1954. The remaining 46 with no known grave were either lost at sea or buried at sea.”
While Lord Alton said it was vital for the remains of 255 British soldiers to be repatriated, Howe’s letter appealed to relatives to come forward to help with these vital steps. “You may like to know that following the commitment of the U.S. and DPRK to recover service personnel missing or killed in North Korea, the Ministry of Defence is offering the opportunity for relatives of U.K. service personnel killed or missing in action in the Korean War to provide DNA samples to facilitate identification.”
The Korean War has been dubbed the “forgotten war” by many due to the number of soldiers’ remains that have never been identified or returned. As Lord Alton explained to reporters, “The Korean War has sometimes been called a forgotten war – one in which up to 3 million people lost their lives,” he said. “Brave British servicemen served with distinction and courage, notably, of course, the Gloucesters.”
Lord Alton explained that due to decades of an oppressive Communist regime, families of British soldiers who fought in the war had been given no closure regarding the fate of their loved ones. “During decades of great cruelty, the North Korean Communist regime refused to allow the return of the remains of men who were lost, missing in action,” Alton said. But he was forced to admit that it was unlikely that more British soldiers’ remains would be returned by North Korea.
Passage of Time
According to Lord Alton: “Although some welcome, small steps have been taken to return the mortal remains of some of the American personnel who were killed, it now seems that many of our own men will never be returned home.” However, “The passage of time has not dimmed the memories of families whose loved ones were lost. Their families have never forgotten them or their sacrifice and nor should we.”
While Trump was successful in securing the return of what are thought to be U.S. servicemen and women’s remains, the British government is hoping that applying pressure in a new political climate could see their soldiers’ remains returned too. Lord Alton explained that the final resting places of these people are paramount to the U.K.
“We hope that if the political climate improves the U.K. Government will continue to keep pressing the North Korean regime,” Alton said. “For any information it has about the final resting places of these courageous British servicemen and not give up on securing the return of their mortal remains to Britain.”
Meanwhile, Nicola Nash, a spokesman at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, noted that: “Any further remains returned by North Korea would likely follow a similar process. U.K. policy is not to actively search for remains to identify and re-inter them. However, where remains are recovered, efforts are made to provide a positive identification.”
Nash explained that: “Although the process of tracing families, DNA testing and identification will probably take many years, we are hoping that as many families as possible will come forward after seeing our press appeals so that we are prepared.” While there’s a long way to go in fixing relations between North Korea and the U.K., many hope that the new reality on the ground will see full repatriation of soldiers’ remains which will offer at least some closure to their bereaved families.