Vice President Mike Pence attended a ceremony in Hawaii Wednesday to receive remains of United States soldiers killed in the Korean War, a bloody conflict which, as History.com records, ended 65 years ago last Friday. At the ceremony, Pence thanked North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who agreed to return the remains at his summit meeting with Donald Trump in June.
“I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me,” Pence said, according to an account by CBS News. “And I’m sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search. These incredible American heroes will soon lay at rest on sacred American soil.”
There’s only one problem. According to a report by the Associated Press on Tuesday, there is simply no way to tell whether the remains actually belong to American soldiers killed in the three-year war that broke out on June 25, 1950.
With the 55 boxes sent by North Korea to the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, this week, the only item that could be used to identify the remains was a single military dog-tag, according to the AP report. North Korea included “no other information that could help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities,” a defense official told the AP.
Trump also thanked Kim, posting his message to the North Korean dictator on Twitter last week.
But forensics experts say that identifying the remains may take years, according to a report by New York Magazine on Wednesday. Between 1990 and 1994, the AP reported, North Korea handed over 208 boxes containing remains that they said belonged to U.S. war dead. But 24 years later, investigators have determined the identities of only 181 — and they believe that the boxes contained commingled remains from many more than 208 persons.
Because identifying the remains is such a painstaking process, “Trump can keep bragging about how he got back the remains of our great heroes without the media being able to definitively assert that he has not,” wrote New York columnist Jonathan Chait on Wednesday.
But the Defense Department on Wednesday said that the remains in the 55 boxes received in Hawaii “likely” belonged to Americans, according to the Washington Post.
“Generally speaking, what I can tell you is that the remains are consistent with the remains we have recovered in North Korea,” said U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency analyst John Byrd, as quoted by The Post.