WASHINGTON — Vietnamese and American officials, meeting in Hanoi last week, took "the most positive step" in more than four years of frustrating negotiations toward clearing up the status of servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War, the State Department said Tuesday.
Vietnam removed a major source of friction when it did not attempt to link its cooperation in MIA investigations to U.S. diplomatic recognition or to any other concession from the United States, American officials said.
"We believe the talks were the most positive step yet in the ongoing process toward resolution of this issue . . . ," department spokesman Charles Redman said. He described the meetings as taking place in a "constructive atmosphere."
2,464 Still Missing
A total of 2,464 American servicemen and civilians are listed as missing from the Southeast Asia fighting, with about 1,400 of them missing in Vietnam and the rest in Laos or Cambodia. No evidence exists that any are still alive, although the Pentagon says it cannot rule out the possibility.
Redman said the U.S. delegation, led by Richard Childress of the National Security Council staff, and the Vietnamese side, headed by Vice Foreign Minister Hoang Bich Son, exchanged proposals for resolving the issue within two years.
"There are a number of common elements between the two concepts," Redman said, although he did not list them.
Another department official said later that the United States has suggested that joint Vietnamese-American task forces conduct investigations, while Hanoi proposed unilateral inquiries, without U.S. participation. But the official said neither side has ruled out the other's approach.
'A Lot of Work to Do'
"We aren't there yet--we have a lot of work to do with them," this official said. "The meeting moved us very far in the right direction. We hope it will continue."
Hanoi may want to resolve the MIA dispute to clear the way for some new diplomatic steps, possibly involving its six-year-old occupation of Cambodia. But it is unclear what the Vietnamese have in mind.
U.S. officials declined to speculate on the reasons for the change of approach by Vietnam, who previously had followed a hard line, demanding diplomatic recognition or U.S. economic aid as the price for cooperation on the MIA issue. Earlier, Hanoi sought to link the MIA issue with a softening of U.S. opposition to the client government it has installed in Cambodia.
A State Department official said there has been no change in the refusal to consider diplomatic recognition of Hanoi until the Vietnamese army is withdrawn from Cambodia and steps are taken to resolve the Cambodian situation.
Meanwhile, Redman described as a "positive step" the reported retirement of ousted Cambodian dictator Pol Pot from the post of military commander of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla faction.
"The United States regards as a positive development anything which moves toward the return to the Cambodian people of control over their own destiny," Redman said. "As the leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 until 1979, when he was responsible for the deaths of at least 1 million of his countrymen, Pol Pot could obviously have no future in Cambodia. His departure from the scene, if true, would be a positive step toward a political settlement of the Cambodian problem."
The next step in the MIA negotiations will be a meeting, expected later this month, of U.S. and Vietnamese technicians. Redman said that a higher-level U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State Paul D. Wolfowitz and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage, will probably confer later with a Vietnamese team headed by Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.