By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005
The Pentagon yesterday abruptly halted a program that sends U.S. missions to North Korea to recover the remains of American soldiers, citing heightened concern about the safety of the recovery teams.
A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees the recovery effort, said the move was prompted not by any specific North Korean action or threat but by a recent string of "saber-rattling" statements from Pyongyang and rising tensions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
"It is a force protection issue," said another spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Salata. "We are concerned that the environment that North Korea has created is not conducive to the effective operation of the missions, and we want to ensure the safest conditions for our recovery teams."
A brief Pacific Command statement announcing the suspension said the United States "is prepared to continue" the missions after the North Koreans "have created an appropriate environment."
The decision marked the second time the United States has interrupted the program since it began nine years ago. Work was stopped from October 2002 to June 2003 after North Korea disclosed that it had secretly been enriching uranium for a nuclear weapons program it promised to freeze in 1994.
The recovery effort, which so far has involved 33 missions, each lasting about a month, has located more than 220 sets of remains. With more than 8,100 U.S. service members still listed as missing in action from the Korean War, which ended in 1953, many additional remains are thought to be recoverable.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon reported that the latest search group, consisting of 27 members, had emerged from North Korea with an unspecified number of remains found at the sites of two former battlefields. Several officers familiar with the mission said yesterday that they knew of nothing that had threatened its safety. Another group had been scheduled to go soon.
The teams operate in North Korea under terms that effectively cut off their ability to communicate with anyone outside the country, Salata said. The only message permitted is a daily situation report sent from a liaison officer in Pyongyang, Salata said.
Although acceptable to U.S. commanders in the past, this restrictive condition would clearly hamper any effort by other U.S. forces to protect the recovery teams should an emergency arise. Such a consideration, Salata suggested, played a part in the decision to suspend the missions.
In recent days, North Korea has fiercely defended its development of nuclear weapons, saying Washington's "hostile policies" have justified the effort and warning against any attack to oust its leadership. U.S. officials have reported satellite imagery that suggests North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear weapons test.
At the same time, North Korea has indicated a possible willingness to resume six-nation talks on its nuclear program.