Advanced DNA Technology May Help Identify Unknown American Victims of the Korean War

DNA technology is giving new hope to the families of American citizens who went missing in the Korean War. At the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, efforts are currently underway to identify 650 Korean War dead. This identification project is the largest of its kind ever taken on by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Several thousand Americans who served in the Korean War are still considered missing. Although some American remains were returned from North Korea after the war, many were unable to be identified and were buried in anonymous graves. Much of the difficulty in identifying these remains can be attributed to their treatment by North and South Korean governments before their shipment to the United States. After the war, the remains were transported to a mortuary in Japan where they were treated with a chemical solution that degraded the DNA and made identification impossible. Recent advances in DNA technology, however, have made the goal of identification possible once again.

“We started saying, look; you know, there’s guys down there. Can you use the newest DNA technology to try to identify them?” said Rick Downes, leader of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. “This one is very big because you have such a large number of men who will finally get their identities back.”

According to lead scientist John Byrd, the VA lab has identified more than 75 percent of the exhumed Korean War remains, with an accuracy rate close to 90 percent for remains that have been with the lab for 6 or more years. The military has amassed a database of relatives and dependents for nearly 92 percent of the Korean War missing, and with this new technology, thousands of families could find closure.

While prior DNA testing procedures were unable to provide clear identifications for Korean War remains, modern DNA techniques, include testing for mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, have proven extremely effective. Mitochondrial DNA is found within the mitochondria of the cell and is passed from the mother to the child. If, upon testing, human remains exhibit a rare mitochondrial DNA, it becomes much easier to identify them. Unfortunately, mitochondrial DNA is not unique to an individual, and it is possible that two unrelated people can share the same mitochondrial DNA.

If forensic anthropologists are working with remains that contain a very common mitochondrial DNA, they’ll need to review the sample’s nuclear DNA. This DNA, located on the inside of a cell’s nucleus, can be found within skeletal remains. As nuclear DNA contains more chromosomes and genes and is inherited from both parents, scientists can use it to get powerful and accurate identification results — especially when the nuclear DNA is pieced together with mitochondrial and parental DNA.

These advanced DNA testing procedures could also have a practical impact on police and other law enforcement agencies. Many cold case murders involve DNA evidence that has degraded over time, making it unusable for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The procedure at the forefront of this latest VA project could not only aid the government in identifying fallen soldiers but also help law enforcement bring closure to countless families with missing loved ones.