REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– U.S. officials have announced they will begin new talks with North Korea to seek the regime's aid in recovering the remains of 5,500 U.S. service members missing since the Korean War.
The announcement made this week by Pentagon officials follows a six-year hiatus in such talks and may signal a warming in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. In recent months, both sides have met to discuss resuming long-stalled six-party talks to persuade North Korea to work toward nuclear disarmament.
There have also been numerous cultural exchanges and a lack of the usual belligerence by the North in its public rhetoric about the U.S. and its role on the Korean peninsula.
A U.S. delegation led Robert J. Newberry, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for POW/MIA affairs, was scheduled to meet with North Korean officials Tuesday in Bangkok.
A Pentagon statement stressed that the talks are to address a "stand-alone humanitarian matter," suggesting that the meeting will avoid other sticking points between the two nations, including Pyongyang's ongoing nuclear testing or U.N. sanctions intended to curtail the North's nuclear proliferation.
Activist groups have called for a resumption of the search for the remains of U.S. troops left behind following the end of the Korean War in 1953. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also urged a new recovery effort.
"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."
The U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic ties. Even though Washington would like access to the sites of former battlegrounds in the North, President Obama has made it clear in recent public statements that he will continue to pressure North Korea to become less of a catalyst for trouble in the region.
The remains of about 8,000 U.S. servicemen are still unaccounted for on the Korean peninsula, and about 5,500 are believed to be located in North Korea.
During a state visit to Washington last week by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said that "if Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation.”
Between 1996 and 2005, workers recovered partial remains of 220 U.S. service personnel from North Korea. But the George W. Bush administration ended recovery operations in 2005 over concerns about the safety of U.S. recovery teams in North Korea, qualms that included a ban on U.S. workers making phone calls outside the country.
The effort, including hundreds of millions of dollars paid to North Korea for logistical support, in the past has involved two U.S. search teams of a about dozen people each, assisted by helicopters.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: During a Sept. 28 visit to the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, U.S. veteran Kenneth Swift points out the name of a friend killed during the conflict. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press