The United States military has suspended efforts to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War from North Korea. U.S. authorities say there are concerns for the recovery teams' safety.
U.S. military officials say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended suspending efforts to retrieve the remains of soldiers missing since the early 1950's. The announcement was made late Wednesday in the United States.
|UN Command soldiers carry two coffins containing remains believed to be US soldiers missing in action from Korean War|
Navy Lieutenant Commander Jason Salata, of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, says for now, the remains recovery team will not be replaced. He calls the decision an issue of "force protection." "The environment that North Korea is creating is just basically not conducive to the effective operation of these missions," he said.
Neither he nor military officials in Washington elaborated on what had changed to cause concerns about the U.S. mission.
U.S. military recovery teams have operated in North Korea under supervision by the North's military since 1996. It is one of the very few contacts the two militaries have with each other.
Lieutenant Commander Salata says the teams operate under very restrictive communication rules in the secretive communist state, with only one contact to headquarters permitted a day via a liaison officer in Pyongyang. He says those restrictions, along with North Korea's steady moves toward becoming a nuclear weapons state, made the country too uncertain an environment in which to operate.
"North Korea's unwillingness to participate in six-party talks, their declared intent to develop nuclear weapons, their withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty-all those things basically make it a judgment call on the part of the U.S. that it's best not to have the teams in North Korea right now," said Mr. Salata.
North Korea became the first nation to leave the 188-member Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. Since then, Pyongyang says it has produced nuclear weapons and will make more. For nearly a year, North Korea has boycotted nuclear disarmament talks with the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan.
More than 8,000 Americans are still missing from the three-year Korean War. The United States and an alliance of United Nations fought alongside the South Koreans against North Korea, which was backed by China.
Hostilities ended in 1953, but since only an armistice was signed and not a peace treaty, North and South Korea technically remain at war.
The United States has a policy of trying to find and identify the remains of all soldiers lost in combat. In North Korea, teams have recovered about 225 sets of remains believed to be those of U.S. soldiers; 25 have been identified. U.S. authorities say they will resume operations when North Korea creates what they call the "right environment."