68 years after the Korean War, hundreds of US families are still searching for closure
Growing up, she knew the word “Korea” before she even understood what it meant.
“I’d heard that word since before I could talk,” she told CNN. “It was just part of our life.”
The remains of thousands of US soldiers are still in North Korea, despite decades of effort by families and the US military to repatriate them.
But while this may bring relief to some families after more than 60 years of trauma and uncertainty, the remains of many more thousands of soldiers in North Korea are as yet unaccounted for and, with even the children of Korean War soldiers aged in their 60s, for some time is quickly running out.
War and division
The Japan-colonized Korean Peninsula was divided in two following Tokyo’s surrender at the end of World War II, with the Soviet Union occupying the North and the US the South.
Two new ideologically opposite countries were established in 1948: The southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Strongman leaders in both sought full reunification of the Peninsula under their rule, and in 1950 tensions spilled over into war.
It warned that South Korean forces were “militarily inferior” to their Northern counterparts and could not repulse the invasion alone.
US representatives began lobbying the United Nations Security Council, then only five years old, to take action.
Also cut off from the outside world, left behind inside an increasingly isolated North Korea, were the remains of thousands of US troops never recovered from the battlefield.
Since 1990, the remains of 340 soldiers have been handed over by North Korea via the DMZ.
An additional 200 sets of remains are believed to have been identified by Pyongyang as likely belonging to US troops, which officials in Washington expect to be handed over in the coming days.
While arrangements have yet to be made, a spokeswoman for US Forces Korea said the remains will likely be handed over via the United Nations authority at the DMZ, as in the past.
Most important are DNA evidence and dental impressions that can be taken from the remains, as these are the best chance of linking them to missing military personnel.
For years, the military has encouraged family members of Korean War soldiers to donate DNA that can be potentially used to identify their relatives’ remains, taking three cheek swabs per person to build up a collection of cells that can be matched to bones and other material recovered from battlefields or disinterred from unmarked graves.
“The US has a very well established team dealing with such remains for a long time now,” said Dr. Philip Beh, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Pathology. “Once the bones get back to the US there’s a lot they can do.”
Key to carrying out identification based on remains is how well they have been exhumed and stored.
“If it has been stored in a pretty dry and clean facility, then in terms of getting measurements from the bones, that’s very doable,” said Beh. “How much in terms of DNA you can collect from the bones really depends on the conditions that they may be in.”
He added that if the set of bones is relatively complete, and particularly if dental remains are recovered, identification could potentially be done in a matter of days.
One of those who has donated DNA is Hebert, who joined other members of her family in providing as much data as possible to the military in the hope that it will one day lead to the remains of her father, Karle Seydel.
“Karle was a terror on that hill,” fellow soldier John Hinds wrote later in an account shared by the Hebert family with CNN. “I didn’t get to know him too well but my memory of him in that battle is vivid as we assaulted the hill he was fearless and looked like someone out of a John Wayne movie.”
At the time of her husband’s death, Rosanne Seydel was staying with her parents in coastal Washington state, caring for her two young children. They received the news by telegram, not knowing what information the message would contain until they collected it from a local town.
“They had to pick it up,” Hebert said. “It’s not like in the movies.”
In a later telegram to Rosanne in February 1951, Maj. A. R. Carson of the US Marine Corps Personal Affairs Branch wrote that Karle “lost his life as a result of a missile wound sustained while he was engaged in combat.”
“I am sorry to tell you that … his remains were not recovered,” he said. “You are assured that every effort is made to recover the remains of our gallant marines who have fallen in battle.”
“You will be promptly notified of any further information received,” the message continued, adding that “it is presumed” Rosanne would pass on the information to Karle’s mother.
Five years later, in 1956, Seydel’s Marine record was updated to note the “non-recoverability of remains.”
An end to war
Decades later, Rosanne, now 92, is still hoping her husband’s body will be found.
“To finally go there, to be in Korea that historic week was fantastic, dreamlike, and so rewarding,” Hebert said.
During the trip, one man was informed that the remains of his brother had been recovered in South Korea. “He was so thrilled for the rest of the week,” Hebert said. “He was just glowing, this search had gone on for so much of his life.”
While she did not leave the Peninsula with her father’s remains, she returned home with a newspaper bearing a large full page picture of Moon and Kim and the headline “Koreas to declare end to Korean War.”
As she watched Trump meeting with Kim in Singapore weeks later, Hebert was remind of the lyrics of a widely covered 1950 song by Ed McCurdy: “Last night I had the strangest dream, I’d ever dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed, to put an end to war.”
While hundreds of remains are due to be handed over soon, a formal end to the war and improved relations between North Korea and the US are likely necessary for the recovery of the remains of thousands of other soldiers still in the country.
Many of those corpses, the result of large, bloody battles, will be buried in unmarked and mass graves, which will require careful exhumation and make ascertaining which bones belong to whom far more difficult.
“You would have to send teams in, have to survey the ground, get a sense of what the lie of things are,” said Beh, the University of Hong Kong expert. “It would be a long, long exercise.”
At present, there are no plans to do so, and having US military investigators inside North Korea would require a massive step forward even for a relationship that has seen major improvements in recent months.
For many family members of the missing, time is running out. During Hebert’s trip to South Korea, “there were a number of very senior adults, a lot of gray and white hair.”
Reflecting on her own mother’s determination and longevity, she said that they’re thinking “if there’s anything left they can do, they’re going to get it done before they pass on.”