WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Wednesday halted a long-running mission in North Korea aimed at recovering the remains of U.S. troops who died during the Korean War, indefinitely suspending the only direct military contact between the adversaries.
Pentagon officials offered few details, but the abrupt decision comes amid escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's refusal to resume multi-nation negotiations over the future of its nuclear program.
Since their inception, the recovery missions have been a financial boon to the government in Pyongyang. The U.S. has paid the regime millions of dollars to provide trucks and other equipment to support the operations.
The Pentagon cited safety concerns for U.S. personnel, who are not allowed to communicate with anyone outside North Korea while conducting the missions in a joint operation with the North Korean government.
"There are communication issues that are difficult, and there is a bit of concern over this," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said.
Di Rita also cited "the uncertain environment" resulting from North Korea's commitment to developing nuclear weapons, its unwillingness to negotiate and its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"All of those things make it a judgment call on the part of the U.S. government that it's best not to have these teams in North Korea," Di Rita said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recommended the suspension of the recovery operations, Di Rita said.
Despite the suspension, a ceremony was being held today at the main U.S. military base in Seoul to mark the latest recovery of remains. They are to be symbolically welcomed back to the United States in flag-covered coffins with a 21-gun salute.
Since the program began in 1996, the Pentagon has conducted 33 missions in North Korea and recovered the remains of more than 220 U.S. soldiers who died during the conflict, which ended in 1953. About 8,100 U.S. service members remain missing on the peninsula.
People who have traveled with the missions say there have been repeated disagreements over whether they could carry satellite telephones and over their freedom of movement.
The recovery teams comprise 25 to 30 U.S. military personnel. One U.S. team had just left North Korea on Tuesday after the remains of U.S. troops were located at two former battlefields. Another team was to begin a new mission this weekend, U.S. officials said.
The communication restrictions imposed on the Americans were part of the original agreement worked out between Washington and Pyongyang.
The remains being repatriated today were found by two teams, one working near the Chosin Reservoir, and the other in Unsan Country. They will be flown to an Army lab in Hawaii for identification.
U.S. veterans groups have lobbied intensely to continue the recovery missions.
Lt. Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, said that the Pentagon hoped to resume the recovery operations as soon as the safety concerns were addressed.
"It's an important mission to us," he said. "We're committed to keeping the promise to those who served."
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this article.