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     Oct 27, 2011

North Korea-US deal on MIAs bodes well
By Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON - The United States and North Korea are resuming the joint search for US soldiers still missing from the Korean War that ended in 1953, one of the few positive areas of interaction between two countries estranged for more than 60 years.

The announcement last week by the Pentagon came before two days of US-North Korea talks in Geneva over a much more intractable issue - North Korea's development of nuclear weapons - and could be part of a tentative thaw following years of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.

United States special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said at the conclusion of the Geneva talks on Tuesday that the

tone was "positive and generally constructive. We narrowed differences in terms of what has to be done before we can both agree to a resumption of the formal negotiations".

There are still major questions over whether North Korea, which carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2008, will relinquish a remaining stockpile of plutonium as well as a uranium enrichment programme that provides another pathway to bombs.

The decision to resume the search for soldiers missing in action (MIAs) appears to have been much less complicated. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Robert J Newberry led a team that reached a deal with North Korea after three days of talks last week in Bangkok.

Major Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for Newberry's office, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that operations will resume next spring and that four missions were planned.

They will take place in Unsan county, about 96 kilometers north of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and near the Chosin Reservoir. The reservoir was the scene of a ferocious battle in late 1950 in which more than 2,000 US soldiers and marines died, along with thousands of US allied troops, North and South Koreans and Chinese.

The latter intervened in Korea after US-led forces, commanded by General Douglas McArthur, crossed the 38th parallel in a disastrously ill-conceived attempt to end communism on the peninsula.

The 1950-1953 conflict began when North Korean soldiers invaded the south and nearly succeeded in overrunning the peninsula. US-led forces staged a daring landing at Inchon and forced the North Koreans back, but the war ended in a stalemate with no peace treaty, just an armistice. The US and North Korea still have no formal diplomatic ties.

Overall, there are about 7,900 US soldiers listed as missing from the Korean War - more than four times the 1,681 US soldiers still unaccounted for from Vietnam.

From 1996 until 2005, teams of US military personnel working with North Koreans brought back the remains of more than 225 US servicemen in operations that went deep into a country so isolated and prickly that it is often referred to as a hermit state. The missions provided a rare bit of cordial contact between the two militaries as well as giving US citizens a glimpse of real life within a country that has often been caricatured because of its totalitarian system and bizarre ruling Kim family.

Frank Metersky, a former marine and veteran of the Korean War who has worked on MIA issues with North Korea for more than two decades, told IPS that the previous missions had all gone smoothly and that the George W Bush administration canceled the program in 2005 under "false pretenses".

United States officials said at the time that they were scrapping the recovery missions because they feared for the safety of US personnel. However, a Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, told this reporter in 2005 that North Korea's refusal to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program was a factor.

Major Parker said the US regarded the MIA recovery efforts as a "humanitarian issue" separate from other US concerns about North Korea.

North Korea is likely to have a different interpretation, especially since the operations include undisclosed hard currency payments to Pyongyang and follow a US decision to resume limited food aid to North Korea's perennially starving people.

It remains unclear whether the gestures are a harbinger of a broader reduction in tensions.

Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS that "things seem to be settling down" in North Korea after a bumpy few years that began when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a massive stroke in 2008. While in the process of installing Kim's third son, Kim Jong-eun, as his designated successor, the North Korean regime carried out a series of provocations, including a second nuclear test, missile launches, sinking a South Korean ship and attacking a South Korean island.

Now, the emphasis appears to be on shoring up the system in advance of celebrations planned next year around the 100th year of the birth of Kim Jong-il's father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea's communist system and dynasty.

"At the moment, the succession process is stable and Kim Jong-il seems in better health," Snyder said, noting recent visits by the North Korean leader to China and Russia.

Both these countries appear to be pushing North Korea to resume nuclear talks. Russia wants to build a pipeline through North Korea to ship natural gas to a booming South Korea, while China, in the throes of its own political succession, would like a trouble-free Korean peninsula for a change.

Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration, which in the past put little priority on resuming ties with North Korea, is replacing its part-time special envoy, Bosworth, with a full-time career diplomat, Glyn Davies.

Metersky, 79, who met a North Korean diplomat for the first time in 1985, long before any US government official, said persistence is the key to success with difficult countries like North Korea.

"Unless you sit across from North Koreans, you never find out what they are really about," he said. "You just can't sit down for a talk and then go away."

(Inter Press Service)

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