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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010

MIA searches may resume

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Robert F. Willard

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CAMP H.M. SMITH North Korea has proposed allowing the United States back into the country to recover American missing war dead from the 1950-53 war, the head of U.S. Pacific Command said yesterday.

"We're going to enter into discussions with (North Korea). That is what we know right now," Adm. Robert F. Willard said. "They are willing to talk about it and we're willing to address the particulars with them."

According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command based at Hickam Air Force Base, 8,034 U.S. service members are still unaccounted-for from the Korean War.

Of that total, estimates are that about 5,100 are in North Korea.

The accounting command conducted recovery missions in North Korea between 1996 and 2005, at a cost of millions in dollars paid to the regime.

The U.S. ceased recovery operations in the spring of 2005, with officials saying North Korea created security concerns that could have jeopardized the safety of the Hawai'i-based investigation and recovery teams.

In particular, U.S. officials raised concern about North Korea's prohibitions on communication equipment used by the Americans.

The suspension of recoveries also occurred as tensions rose over North Korea's nuclear program. The recovery program also was stopped before, in 2002, over the North's nuclear weapons activity.

Willard, who spoke to reporters yesterday at his Camp Smith office, said there is no ongoing military-to-military engagement with North Korea. Such engagement is used elsewhere in the region to develop relationships and improve stability.

"It's a complex problem. We've been in (North Korea for recovery missions) before, and it appears that we're being invited to consider going back again," Willard said. "It's something that we'll take seriously and we'll enter into dialogue with them and find out where it will lead."

No timetable was given for a possible return date.

The communist nation recently called for "an end to the hostile relationship" with the United States, even though it tested a nuclear device in May. The U.S. wants North Korea to return to six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

Willard said he can't speak to the North's motivations for choosing to re-engage with the United States on the recovery issue.

"If the overture is being made to allow that tiny bit of engagement to occur, we think there is likely benefit to be derived from it in addition to what it accomplishes in our own personnel accounting," he said.

Willard on Oct. 19 took command of U.S. armed forces in the region. The Pacific Command region, which is home to more than half of the world's population, includes 320,000 U.S. service members and 36 nations.

The accounting command's mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts.

Accounting command field activities in North Korea from 1996 to 2005 yielded more than 220 remains. Between 1990 and 1994, North Korea unilaterally turned over 208 sets of U.S. remains.

Most of the accounting command's missions in North Korea were to Unsan and Kujang counties.