Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) said yesterday he told President Clinton he still expects a U.S. pilot whose helicopter crashed in North Korea to be released soon, perhaps by Christmas. Last night, North Korea said it would release the pilot on Christmas day, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.
But U.S. officials said they could not confirm the report or that talks had even taken place on the issue today in North Korea, the Associated Press reported. "I specifically cannot confirm either of those reports," U.S. military spokesman Jim Coles told AP. "We continue to want to talk to them."
Yonhap said the agreement to release Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall came during a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials at the truce village of Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
A senior Pentagon official said he could not confirm the report. "We have no confirmation of that and we believe it to be wrong at this stage," the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told AP. "There was supposed to be a meeting at Panmunjom, but it hasn't even started yet."
Richardson, in North Korea to discuss a pending nuclear agreement when the helicopter went down last weekend, met Clinton earlier yesterday to brief him on five days of "tense, testy" discussions in Pyongyang in an attempt to obtain release of the pilot and body of his dead crewman.
Richardson and U.S. officials had predicted that a round of military-to-military discussions would produce an agreement for release by Christmas. "What I told the president was No. 1, that Bobby Hall, in my judgment, will be released. No. 2, that he would be released very soon. That was the agreement I made with the North Koreans. And thirdly, that there was a decent chance that he would be released before Christmas," he said.
Chief Warrant Officer Hall of Brooksville, Fla., was captured last Saturday after his helicopter flew from South Korean airspace into North Korean territory.
The United States said the incursion was accidental and due to snowy conditions and other problems and asked that Hall be released and the body of Chief Warren Officer David Hilemon of Clarksville, Tenn., who was killed in the crash, be returned.
Richardson left North Korea Thursday with Hilemon's remains, which were flown to his home town in California.
The military, not the foreign ministry officials with whom he negotiated, Richardson said, appeared to be in charge of the issue. "They are sensitive," Richardson said. "North Koreans do not like to be pressured."
Richardson acknowledged the North Koreans would not let him see or speak to Hall, and that notes to Hall and to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il went unanswered. But he said he was assured Hall was "alive and in relatively good condition" after the ordeal.
Richardson said the North Koreans told him they would not release Hall until their investigation of the incident and that they had found "some papers" on the helicopter that they were reviewing.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned earlier this week that excessive delay in resolving the incident may affect U.S.-North Korean relations, improved since an October agreement aimed at eliminating North Korean's nuclear weapons program.
The initial results of a U.S. government autopsy on the body of Hilemon were consistent with the North Korean claim he died in the helicopter crash, a senior U.S. official said.
Military pathologists found no evidence of bullet wounds and ample indication of "massive trauma" such as that caused by hard, sudden impact, the official said.
No formal announcement of the findings of the autopsy will be released until Hall is freed.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.