WASHINGTON — The United States and North Korea will resume and intensify the search for remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War, officials said Friday. The next mission is set to begin June 25, the 50th anniversary of the conflict's outbreak.
In what U.S. officials portrayed as a major step, a joint excavation team will search for five months at five sites in two North Korean counties, in an effort that the Pentagon hopes will turn up dozens of sets of remains.
Teams of Americans and North Koreans have conducted excavations, lasting about one month each, for each of the past four years. But the searches were halted last November, and negotiations to resume them broke down a month later.
Under the agreement announced Friday, the North Koreans will allow the U.S. to double the number of its personnel on each search team, to 20, and to increase the number of excavations from about three a year to five.
The agreement came on the third day of negotiations in Malaysia between the Pentagon and the North Korean military, and after months of friction over the issue.
About 8,200 U.S. servicemen are still unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war, including about 1,500 who were lost in the vicinity of the planned dig sites, officials said. During the first four years of searching, 42 sets of suspected U.S. remains were found. Only three, however, have been positively identified.
Thousands of Americans were wounded or killed in the two-county region amid seesaw battles involving North and South Korean, Chinese and U.S. forces. Among American units, the 8th Cavalry Regiment was particularly hard hit.
North Korea's Stalinist regime periodically threatened to halt past excavations unless the U.S. agreed to provide millions of dollars in economic aid.
Last December, negotiations were sidetracked by North Korea's demand that the U.S. contribute millions of dollars toward construction of what it said would be children's clothing factories.
In January, apparently trying to build pressure for a resumption of the negotiations, a North Korean official said the U.S. could obtain about 400 sets of remains from a site in North Pyongan province if it moved quickly. Later, according to U.S. officials, North Korea acknowledged that it did not have 400 sets to offer, but only four.
Veterans groups have denounced such pressure as "shopping-bag diplomacy." And U.S. officials have insisted that there will be no linkage between MIA issues and other matters that are on the table between the two countries.
The U.S. will pay the North Koreans about $2 million for the upcoming excavations, about the same amount it has paid for such missions in each of the past years. But U.S. officials say the money is intended to cover expenses, including vehicle storage, maintenance, labor, fuel, water and other necessities.
Veterans groups, which have been eager for progress but have resisted North Korean demands for money, reacted favorably to news of expanded excavations.
"We always welcome these signs of positive movement," said John Petersen of the American Legion's foreign policy branch. At the same time, he predicted that the North Koreans soon may begin pressuring the U.S. for more money, claiming that expenses have increased.
Meanwhile, South Korea's Defense Ministry said skeletal remains believed to be those of a U.S. soldier killed during the Korean War have been found near a former battle site, the Associated Press reported Friday.
The remains were recovered near Tabudong, a town in southern South Korea, and sent to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for forensic tests and identification, said Col. Park In Young, who is in charge of the recovery operations.
U.S.-made military items recovered with the remains--a spoon, combat boots, leggings, a poncho and C-ration cans--indicated that they belonged to an American soldier, Park said.