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DoD News Briefing: Mr. J. Alan Liotta, DASD, POW/Missing Personnel Affairs

Presenters: Mr. J. Alan Liotta, DASD, POW/Missing Personnel Affairs
October 29, 1997 1:30 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

Alan Liotta, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW and Missing Personnel Affairs is well known to you from his past briefings here, and we welcome him back today and any time he wants to come.

He will fill you in on the accomplishments of the DoD team that recently returned from North Korea, I guess just today, actually, and was able to repatriate a set of remains.

This was the fourth mission, I believe, that we've been on to North Korea in the last two years, maybe. Alan will describe that to you and then take your questions. Thank you very much.

Mr. Liotta: Thank you, Ken. I'm glad to be back with you all again. I'd like to make just a few opening remarks, and then I'll be glad to take whatever questions you might have.

This morning Korea time, we repatriated the remains of what we believe was an American soldier killed during the Korean War in a battle in Unsan County. The remains were repatriated across the demilitarized zone, and this culminates the fourth such joint operation which we've done with North Korea since July of 1996.

If you'll recall when I last spoke with you in August, we had just completed the first of those operations this year, and also the archival mission. That

represented two of the significant steps which we hope to see this year. The other two steps were the final two operations that we completed subsequently in 1997. Altogether, we consider 1997 to be the most productive year we've had in working with the North Koreans in the effort to account for our more than 8100 missing men from the Korean War.

The year ended not only with just this operation but also the first visit by representatives from veterans service organizations here in the United States and family members, as well as a press contingent to accompany them, to come and witness the joint recovery operation and to also see the museum where we had done the joint archival work.

We're very pleased with these events thus far. We're anticipating in 1998 that we will have an even more ambitious schedule, and we're looking forward to sitting down with the North Koreans to work out that schedule.

I just want to emphasize as I did in August that the remains recovery work and the archival work represent two of what we consider a three prong approach to our work with the North Koreans. The first is the recovery of remains that we believe are there and we can bring back to the United States and identify and return to their families. The second is the archival work which goes on not just in North Korea but also here in the United States, in Seoul, and any other place where we believe there are archival records that will assist us in the overall accounting effort. The third is an effort to get to the bottom of persistent reports that there may still be Americans alive in North Korea held against their will, or Americans who were held in North Korea after the war but may no longer be alive. We continue to investigate each and every one of these reports in an effort to try and corroborate that information and determine if there's any salient information for which we can take action.

As I said, 1998 we hope will be a more ambitious year, and we anticipate that we'll be able to sit down with the North Koreans to continue the Defense Department negotiations and build a broad calendar that will allow us to make progress in each of these three areas.

That concludes my statement and I'd be glad to take any questions.

Q: Did you have a representative stay back in the capital, Pyongyang? How was that person treated? And what type of access did he get or she get that was different than in previous times?

A: We maintained the operations the same way we did them last year. What we did was we have eight members of a team that go to the field that conduct the actual operation. Then we have a two man contingent that remains in Pyongyang, and their principal focus is two-fold. One, they're a communications link from the field back to Washington and Hawaii where the Central Identification Laboratory is headquartered. So the field will radio information back to Pyongyang and then the team in Pyongyang will report it back to CILHI and to Washington. Then their other goal is if the team runs into a problem in the field that needs to be negotiated out, so that the team can stay focused on actually doing their work, this two man element's job is to do any negotiations with senior officials which they have in Pyongyang to help resolve the issue.

An example of that this year was we wanted to establish a radial communications link from the site to Pyongyang. That was something we did not have last year, and it was a severe hindrance to the operation. This year we agreed that we would use an HF radio to bring communications back and forth, but the communications link during the first operation didn't work. We couldn't get a line of sight with the radio in Unsan back to Pyongyang, and we couldn't actually work out a communications link.

The team that was in Pyongyang worked with foreign ministry and Korean People's Army officials to get approval to move the antenna site to a different mountaintop near Unsan County and to change the location of the receiving radar in Pyongyang, and the result was that we were able, on the second mission, to establish a communications link, and for the second half of that mission and for all of the third mission we were able to maintain daily commo checks between the site and Pyongyang which is actually sort of a phenomenal development when you stop and think about it, that the North Koreans were allowing us to go and set up this radio in Pyongyang to communicate out with our field element.

Q: This was the fourth mission since when?

A: Since July of '96.

Q: In June I remember a briefing where we were told that that was the first mission this year, I believe. Is that correct?

A: That's correct. We did one mission in July of 1996. We had a second mission scheduled for September which was canceled because of the submarine incident. Then in 1997 we've done three missions. The first was in June, actually ended in July, June through July; the third mission was in August to September; and then the final mission was through the month of October.

Q: How much has the United States paid North Korea for each of these missions, and how much is North Korea asking to be paid for these missions?

A: The compensation rate which we do for these missions was negotiated out, an agreement. It was based on our experience after the first operation. We only compensate for expenses which we can verify. So using the experience of the first operation, we negotiated out a round sum of $100,000 per mission, and that compensates for land which is destroyed during the course of the mission, the people that assist us in the mission -- both workers at the site as well as any witnesses that might provide information, local officials and things like that, transportation vehicles, gasoline, all of the logistical arrangements which go in and requirements that are necessary for a mission to succeed. But they're based on our actually being on the ground and being able to verify the expenses as legitimate.

Q: How much were the North Koreans asking for?

A: In this go-around, when we negotiated out, they did not come in with a set number. They were relying on what we had before. We used the cost of the first operation as our guideline and then said we wanted... We actually plussed it up slightly because we were able to add in helicopter support and a few other things which we did not have in the first operation. But they did not come to us with a number.

Q: What about anecdotal evidence of hunger that you sometimes see in the Western press? Did your team witness or see any of that?

A: I'd be cautious in what the team saw because first, that's not their mission and they're not there to report on that. Second, what they see is exactly as you characterized it, anecdotal. It's a small slice of just the area where they're traveling to, and I couldn't really say it would be representative of anything within the country. There were some reporters on this trip, both of whom have been in North Korea before and filed reports on hunger in North Korea, and I think their comments might be more salient in terms of a comparison than what the team could offer up.

Q: Did you happen to see any in your area?

A: The team did not report on any massive famine from where they were, but again, that's not what their purpose was so I would not have expected that to be in their reports.

Q: You said you'd like a more ambitious schedule for 1998. Can you outline what you're hoping to get?

A: I think one of the things which we will talk to the North Koreans about is increasing the number of joint recovery missions which we have in the country. We'd like to return and do some more archival missions and to further build on the information which we got in the first one and find out whether information may be available to assist us. And we're going to continue to pursue access to the four defectors that we know are in North Korea that we wish to interview that they have not allowed us to talk to yet.

Q: How many missions do you hope to accomplish?

A: That would depend on the terms of negotiation. But we know we can do more than three, and we're hoping we'll be able to do several more beyond that.

Q: Did the North Koreans take the letter from the family group requesting access to these four Americans believed to be alive?

A: My understanding is that they did, yes.

Q: Do you know if there's been any response to that letter yet?

A: Not to us there has not been, but they may respond directly to the families and the veterans since they're the ones that issued the letter. It did not come from us.

Press: Thank you very much.

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