PENTAGON - A group of 55 sets of human remains handed over by North Korea last week were transferred Wednesday to U.S. military transport planes at a ceremony in South Korea before flying on to the U.S. state of Hawaii.
Vice President Mike Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, will attend a second ceremony when the remains arrive at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
At the repatriation ceremony at Osan Airbase in South Korea, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, spoke about the solemn duty of bringing home war dead and prisoners of war.
"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," he said. "And for all in attendance, 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."
North Korea has provided almost no information to help identify the individuals whose remains are being repatriated to the United States, a U.S. defense official told VOA.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Pyongyang included only one military dog tag with the 55 boxes of remains.
No additional information was given to help U.S. forensics experts determine who is in those boxes, according to the official.
"It could take months, or even years to identify them," the defense official said.
So far, the remains have not been confirmed as those of American service members.
"We don't know who's in those boxes,'' Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters Friday at the Pentagon. He added that the remains could be of Australians, French or any of the others who fought alongside American troops in the Korean War. He said that when an individual is identified, those remains will be returned.
"This is an international effort to bring closure," Mattis said.
A total of 17 United Nations member countries fought on behalf of South Korea during the war.
Fifty-five boxes, topped with blue U.N. flags, were handed over at Wonsan, North Korea, last week and flown to a U.S. base in South Korea.
The transfer begins to fulfill an agreement made last month between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic meeting in Singapore in June. Trump tweeted his thanks to Kim after the remains arrived in South Korea.
About 7,700 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing from the Korean War, and 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea.