Vietnam has proposed direct, high-level talks with the United States on resolving the problem of U.S. servicemen missing in action, State Department officials disclosed yesterday.
Such talks would be the first between the two nations since the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and could be a first step toward normalization of relations.
The officials said the message from the communist government in Hanoi was passed from the Vietnamese ambassador in Jakarta to Indonesian Foreign Minister Mokhtar Kusumaatmadja, who forwarded it to Secretary of State George P. Shultz this week.
It expressed Vietnamese "willingness" to begin talks soon aimed at resolving the issue over the next two years, the officials said.
No response will be made until Shultz discusses the proposal with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during his trip to the region that began yesterday, the officials said. The ASEAN opens a formal meeting next week in Kuala Lumpur.
"We are studying this proposal. If it indicates a sincere desire on the part of the government of Vietnam to move forward more rapidly than in the past to resolve this longstanding issue, which has caused so much anguish to the families of the missing men, we would of course welcome that very much," the State Department said in an official statement. It added that the United States is "extremely grateful" to Mokhtar for his efforts to help.
Small U.S. technical teams of five or six persons, headed by a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, now visit Ho Chi Minh City -- formerly Saigon -- six times a year to discuss the 1,375 U.S. servicemen not accounted for in Vietnam since the war ended. Another 1,089 U.S. servicemen are listed as missing in action or prisoners of war in other parts of Southeast Asia.
A "high-level" discussion with Vietnam could involve anyone from colonels through foreign ministers, the officials said.
The U.S. position has been that Vietnam must end its occupation of neighboring Cambodia before any normalization can occur.
Mokhtar has been pressing the United States to take a different first step toward improved relations by assigning an MIA-POW technical team permanently to Vietnam.
Paul Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the United States might be willing to send such experts "if there's work for them to do." Cases have been resolved at a rate of 8 to 10 each year, "a painfully slow pace," Wolfowitz said.
He spoke in an interview with reporters of several Asian nations broadcast Tuesday over the U.S. Information Agency's WorldNet system and made available yesterday to U.S. journalists.
Wolfowitz emphasized that any such permanent mission would in no way be "creating a diplomatic presence or normalizing relations," but added, "we're not going to refuse contact with Vietnam where that contact can assure accounting of our men missing in action."
A State Department official said Wolfowitz had deliberately left open the question of what would constitute sufficient assurance.
Resolution of the MIA-POW issue would "improve the atmosphere" and allow the United States to help in "promoting a political solution to Cambodia, one in which the United States, as part of it, would normalize relations with Vietnam," Wolfowitz said.
Asked yesterday while en route to Asia to elaborate on these remarks, Wolfowitz appeared to harden his stance, saying Vietnam will have to go "a lot further" than it has so far toward accounting for the missing before any permanent office can be considered, Washington Post staff writer Don Oberdorfer reported.
State Department officials said the U.S. diplomatic and trade embargo with Vietnam will continue as part of U.S. pressure for Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia.