After a six-year hiatus, the Pentagon has agreed to negotiate with North Korea on resuming an effort to recover remains of the estimated 5,500 U.S. service members unaccounted for from the Korean War.
In a brief announcement Monday, the Pentagon said the negotiations would begin Tuesday in Bangkok. It offered no explanation for seeking to resume a recovery operation that Washington suspended in May 2005.
The Pentagon statement said the talks will address a "stand-alone humanitarian matter" and are not linked to other issues, which include most prominently the North Korean nuclear program and U.S.-supported international sanctions aimed at stopping North Korean weapon proliferation.
The U.S. and North Korea have no formal diplomatic ties, and relations have been especially rocky in recent years. During a state visit to Washington last week by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, President Barack Obama had strong words for communist North Korea, saying that "if Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations it will invite even more pressure and isolation."
Still, there have been recent signs that relations are getting better. Diplomats from the United States and North and South Korea have separately met to discuss resuming long-stalled international nuclear disarmament negotiations. There also have been a flurry of cultural exchanges between the Koreas and some easing of antagonistic rhetoric.
Leading the U.S. delegation to Bangkok will be Robert J. Newberry, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs.
When the administration of President George W. Bush suspended recovery operations in 2005 amid rising tensions with North Korea it said it was concerned about the safety of U.S. recovery teams in North Korea. Among the concerns cited then was a ban on U.S. personnel making phone calls outside the country.
The remains recovery program had been suspended once before, from October 2002 to June 2003, after the North Koreans disclosed to a State Department envoy that they had secretly been running an active nuclear weapons program.
U.S. veterans' organizations have long advocated an aggressive U.S. effort to recover remains from the 1950-53 war. Many U.S. war dead were left behind when Chinese forces overran U.S. positions in North Korea in the fall of 1950.
Joint recovery missions began in 1996 and are the only form of U.S.-North Korean military cooperation.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she was pleased that the Pentagon was making a renewed effort to recover war remains in North Korea. In August, she wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging a relaunching of recovery missions as soon as possible.
"Most Korean War veterans are in their 80s," she said in a statement Monday. "And the U.S. Veterans Administration says close to 1,000 Korean War veterans die each day. We cannot wait any longer to resume this critical work."
Prior to the 2005 suspension of recovery efforts, the U.S. paid the North Koreans hundreds of millions of dollars for their support of the effort each year.
Under previous arrangements, two U.S. teams of up to 13 people each entered North Korea on a mission. Two other people were stationed in Pyongyang, the capital, to provide logistical and communications support. The arrangements included helicopters for use in the event of a medical emergency.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP
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