Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room August 14, 2018 2:48 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. The images from the Honorable Carry Ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor this month made us all proud to be Americans.
President Trump is committed to getting the almost 8,000 left behind from the Korean War home, and bringing closure to the families who have been waiting for more than 60 years. The process of identifying and verifying the remains is challenging but one that this administration is committed to.
Overseeing this process is Kelly McKeague, the Director of the Defense for POW and MIA Accounting Agency. Leading DOD's worldwide operation of research, investigation, recovery, and identification, and supporting functions, Director McKeague strives to provide the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel.
The Director, along with his colleagues, Dr. John Byrd, the Defense POW and MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory Director, and Dr. Timothy McMahon, Director of DOD DNA Operations, have joined us today to offer remarks and take your questions on this topic.
After this, I'll be back up to address other questions and news of the day. Thanks.
MR. MCKEAGUE: Thank you, Sarah. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.
The August 1st repatriation and homecoming in Hawaii of the remains of the Korean War unaccounted for was a poignant manifestation of the commitments secured by President Trump and pledged by Chairman Kim at the Singapore Summit.
For the families of the 7,700 still unaccounted for from the Korean War, this first step in fulfilling this commitment has undoubtedly provided a seed of hope.
Last week, over 700 of these family members gathered in Arlington, Virginia to receive government updates, and they were resoundingly appreciative of the successful advocacy of the President and his administration.
Two of those family members who attended, Charles and Larry McDaniel, were the recipients of the dog tag their father, Master Sgt. Charles McDaniel, of Indiana. It was the sole personal effect returned by the North Koreans.
The remains of those 55 cases are well into the painstaking multi-faceted analyses by Dr. John Byrd and his forensic science team in Hawaii. And in the coming weeks, Dr. Tim McMahon and his dedicated DNA specialists in Delaware will begin their meticulous testing.
The metal of our scientists and the capabilities of our labs will be challenged. But in the months and years ahead, they will make identifications from these remains and give families long-sought answers.
We are guardedly optimistic the 1 August repatriation is the first tangible action of others with which we will be able to account for more of our missing from the Korean War.
The second aspect of the Korean - of the Singapore commitment was the recovery of remains in North Korea, which DPRK officials reaffirmed last month. We are in the midst of exploring next steps as well as discussions with the Korean People's Army for the express purpose of resuming joint field operations and having additional repatriations.
But our mission to search for, find, and account for missing Department of Defense personnel from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom is one not limited to the Korean Peninsula.
Today, 186 personnel from DPA and private partners are deployed in seven nations. And yesterday, 50 of those members returned from Laos and the Philippines.
Our global mission is humanitarian in every respect, because the impact of a missing American to their family is not constrained by time or generations. And it leaves an enduring pain and void. This is why former enemies, like Vietnam, used cooperation on the POW/MIA mission as a bridge to normalization in today's thriving bilateral relationship with the United States.
The fact that the United States of America vigorously pursues the fullest-possible accounting of our missing reflects our values as a nation.
The sacred obligation, if not moral imperative, remains a high priority for the Department of Defense. Inherent to the exceptional teamwork, resources, and resoluteness provided by multiple agencies is a solemn vow that those were sent off in harm's way and are missing will not be forgotten. And their families will receive answers to their decades of uncertainty.
My colleagues and I welcome your questions.
MS. SANDERS: Major.
Q Gentlemen, I was with President Clinton in 2000 when he went to a place in Vietnam, north of Hanoi, where one of these recovery efforts were underway. So I have some familiarity with this. Even there, when things are discovered, it takes a long time to establish the trail forensically.
I'd like to ask you both: What condition are the remains or the parts of remains you've received so far, and how challenging with the forensic work be ahead? Are you a long, long way? Or was what you received something that gets you close to identifying and confirming?
DR. BYRD: We would characterize the preservation of the remains as moderate to poor, as a general consideration. However, what our lab specializes in is making identifications in circumstances where you have very little to work with. And so I'm confident that we're going to do well with the remains in these 55 boxes over the coming months and maybe the next several years.
When you look at what's at stake, we're going to be doing a lot of DNA sampling. And that's what Dr. McMahon's lab does, is they process the samples and then they go into a mass database where they can be compared to all of the other samples that we've generated from remains from North Korea, and also compared to the family members.
And so it takes some time to get the samples processed through the lab at AFMES; it takes some time to get them into the mass comparison. But once they're in there, we'll start looking for the quick identifications that can be made where you have compelling matches that show themselves early on.
We also look for comparisons to dental records that can be distinctive. We look for individuals that are unusual, in the sense of being very tall, very short, very old. Anything that distinguishes somebody, we can usually get a good clue and identify them faster.
But because of the preservation of the remains, that will just sort of guide the kinds of methods that we can bring to bear on the case. And the case will be very DNA - or very DNA-intensive in terms of the way that we're going to go about this.
Q And did the number of 55, is that - what does that number represent -
DR. BYRD: It's the number of boxes.
Q Is that 55 individuals?
DR. BYRD: No. It's the number of boxes that the remains came in. And at no time did we expect there to be one body, one box. Nor did the North Koreans try to pitch it that way to us when we were in Wonsan.
MS. SANDERS: John.
Q Mr. Director, thank you. What type of certainty do you have that the remains that the North Koreans have handed over to the Americans are that of missing Americans as opposed to other nationalities that fought alongside the Americans who were in the Korean War?
MR. MCKEAGUE: We have a high confidence. So in the early '90s, for five years, the North Koreans would repatriate, unilaterally, remains that they had recovered. Out of those 208 boxes over those five years, we estimated, after DNA sampling, 400 individuals.
Now, from that, 200 were Americans. So the likelihood is - you're correct, there may be some of U.N.-sending forces, there may be some South Korean soldiers - remains, as well as Chinese and North Korean.
What our laboratories - both DNA and the forensic laboratory have the technology and the capabilities by which to differentiate those remains over the course of the next several years.
MS. SANDERS: David.
Q Director, I think you mentioned in some discussions with the North Koreans about potential future actions, maybe to search for more remains and joint efforts as such. I think the Pentagon and Secretary Mattis have mentioned that.
If I'm to understand right, the Bush administration ended the program in which U.S. officials would be helping search for the remains in part because of security concerns for our own forces there.
Can you describe kind of what you're looking for from the North that could resume those kind of operations - joint operations, and what steps you needed and how close you are to maybe doing that?
MR. MCKEAGUE: So for 10 years, we operated between 1996 and 2005, over time conducting 33 joint activities with the North Koreans. Security is primarily our responsibility for our personnel. We also pay attention to communications - having communications abilities as well as having an ability to medevac our personnel should they get hurt.
What we would be looking for from the North Koreans is, again, a commitment from them that communications, medical evacuation requirements can be met, and more importantly, that we can conduct these joint operations in a collaborative way, as we had done for 10 years.
It all comes down, back into 2005, to their behavior on the international stage. The President, rightfully so, was concerned that their nuclear activities, their missile activities, were countermanding and counterproductive to our joint operations, which is why we suspended -
Q So it's more of the tone and the bigger geopolitical talks that are going on? Or is it specifics about being in the field that you're really looking at right now?
MR. MCKEAGUE: Both. So, Secretary Pompeo, in getting a reaffirmation from the North Koreans last month, affirmed that they do want to establish communications with us and to conduct joint operations. We have not started those negotiations. We will do so. It is on a separate track.
However, as you well pointed out, it could be drawn into the greater geopolitical stream. But for now, we're treating it as a military-to-military contact, but more importantly, as a humanitarian endeavor that's separate and distinct from anything else.
And, by the way, the 45 countries that we work with all rightfully recognize this as a humanitarian endeavor, including countries like Russia and China, where we have tremendous cooperation with them.
MS. SANDERS: John.
Q Thank you, Sarah. Gentlemen, the recent death of former Congressman Bill Hendon of North Carolina brought back a lot of the rehashing of serious charges he made that those who were in Vietnam, either as prisoners or dead, were not fully accounted for. Has the book finally been closed on those Americans who served in Vietnam and were prisoners of war?
MR. MCKEAGUE: It has. So, right now, there are close to 1,700 - 1,600 that remain missing and unaccounted for. Within that set of unaccounted for is what we call "last known alive." It's a small subset of individuals who, for whatever reason, were seen alive at a certain point during the war and will remain unaccounted for.
Our priority with the Vietnamese is to get at that subset - small subset. I think it's down to 25 - not necessarily prisoners of war, but again, last known alive at the time that they were seen.
MS. SANDERS: We'll take one last question.
Q Real quick. Of the remains in the 55 boxes, can we confirm for a fact that all of them are human remains? Or are we still questioning that?
DR. BYRD: Yes, we did a cursory inspection of the remains in Wonsan before we loaded them onto our military aircraft just to ensure that at least some of what was in each box was human. When we got to Osan, in South Korea, we spent two days going through every box in detail, conducting what we call a field forensic review. The purpose of that review is to ensure that every item is consistent with being human. And if there were any animal remains, we would have pulled them at that point. As it was, we did not find any animal remains.
Q And a quick follow-up. Do we have any idea how many people that we're looking at yet?
DR. BYRD: No, we don't. You know, there is a scientific process to estimate that. And I wish it were very fast, because I think a lot of people would really like to know. The families would love to know that information. But unfortunately, it's going to take months of analysis to start to get a refined estimate.
MS. SANDERS: Sorry, just one last question. Kristen.
Q Thank you. Do you have a timeline for bringing back more remains? And can you characterize what it has been like to work with the North Koreans on this particular part of this process? Have they been working with you in good faith every step of the way?
DR. BYRD: Okay, so the first question, as Mr. McKeague mentioned, we're in the process of planning next steps. So we can't say we have any timeline today for bringing back more remains. We're hopeful that we will be in the not-too-distant future.
I will say, though, in terms of having worked there - I worked there in the past, during the 1996 to 2000 - five years. I spent a lot of time in the field there. And then I went into Wonsan with our team on July 27th, and there was a very different feel to it this time. It was a much more friendly, welcoming, and collegial approach this time compared to the way it used to be.
MS. SANDERS: Thank you, Director.
Looking ahead to next week, Ambassador Bolton will meet with officials in Israel and Ukraine, as well as with his Russian counterpart in Geneva as a follow-up to the Helsinki Summit to discuss a range of important national security issues.