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0617North Korea DoD News Briefing

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
June 17, 1996 1:00 PM EDT

Monday, June 17, 1996 - 1:00 p.m.

(Also participating is Allen Liotta, Deputy Director, Office of POW/MIA Affairs)

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

Allen Liotta is well known to some of you as an expert on our efforts to follow up on all the leads about POWs/MIAs in Korea from the Korean War. He's the Deputy Director of the Office of POW/MIA Affairs. He has just returned from North Korea where he was heading the team that was negotiating the details of later trips into North Korea to look for remains of POWs/MIAs, so he's here to talk about that. He can also take questions about the reports that some of you wrote over the weekend on the reports that have come out, or the unconfirmed reports that have come out about sightings of people in North Korea.

MR. LIOTTA: Good afternoon. It's good to see you all again after such a short time.

I have a brief statement I'd like to make, and then I'll be glad to take questions from you all.

From the 10th to the 15th of this month I led the delegation to Pyongyang, North Korea for discussions with the North Koreans on joint recovery work. My delegation was a technical working level delegation that came out of the New York agreement that was signed on May 9th between the North Koreans and us, on doing recovery work in North Korea and settling compensation issues over remains they had given to us in the past.

One of the significant parts of the delegation is this was the first DoD delegation to travel to the North Korean capital since the end of the war. As a result of that, the North Koreans treated us with a great deal of respect. We had very high level discussions in terms of within the military counterparts it was all working level with the exception of a dinner with a two star general that's responsible for this issue. They wanted to make sure that we'd done a little bit of touring in the country and saw some things that were related to the issues, so we did take a tour of the museum for the Korean War. It's significant, although other Americans have been in this museum before, principally some congressmen and senators, we were taken to more rooms than any other American group had been to in this museum. There are 80-plus rooms in the museum. We saw about 39 of them. Not all the rooms deal with the Korean War. A lot of them deal with the Japanese War and the struggle against the Japanese.

We also went to the crash site, and what we did was, as the negotiations proceeded, we agreed on two joint recovery operations. A first which will occur next month in July. It will start on the 10th of July. It will last for 20 days. There will be ten Americans involved -- eight will be working at the site, and two Americans will remain in Pyongyang as liaison with the foreign ministry and the defense ministry officials there. That operation will end on the 30th of July, and then we will return in September for another 20 day mission. That mission will also include ten Americans under the same setup -- eight and two -- and will last, as I said, for 20 days. We haven't set a specific start date for the September mission. We'll do that after, but the mission will occur during the month of September.

The first crash site is an F-80C aircraft, crashed in Unsar County which is in the very northern part of the peninsula, about 18 kilometers from the Chinese border. They took us to the crash site, to the area of the crash site, I should say. As with the Nam Po city crash site that I briefed you about, or that you heard about after Congressman Richardson's visit, we did not actually see wreckage on the ground, in the area. We were taken to the specific grid coordinates that we had provided to them for this crash site. We walked the terrain, we spent a little over an hour at the crash site walking the terrain, getting a feel for the area. But again, this is a crash site that's over 45 years old. It's an area that was cultivated. So there was no surface wreckage that we were able to see in the short time that we were there.

My delegation consisted of three representatives in the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which does the actual excavation work; two representatives from my office; and a State Department representative.

Q: Why did you choose that site if there was no wreckage there? Why are you interested in that site in particular?

A: We provided the North Koreans ten sites -- not all crash sites. Some crash sites and some grave sites. Of those ten, we asked them to choose two sites. We said we could go to any of these ten sites. We think these are all good possibilities for recovery work. We asked them to select from that. They did select two of those ten sites. This is one of those ten sites.

Q: The F-80C carried how many people?

A: It's a one-seat aircraft. It was a one-seater, so there's one individual involved in this crash.

Q: The F-80C is the one you're going to in July?

A: That's correct. And then the September operation is a B-29 bomber which crashed outside of Nam Po City. It's the area that they took Congressman Richardson too. I was also in Congressman Richardson's delegation as the DoD representative. They took us to that crash site during his visit.

Q: Where was that again?

A: It's in Nam Po City which is southeast of Pyongyang.

Q: What's the name of the pilot who was in the F-80?

A: We don't release the names of the crew members that are involved for privacy of the families. But Air Force Casualty is attempting to contact the family members involved in these incidents.

Q: Was this plane shot down, or...

A: Yes, it was. Both of these planes were shot down.

Q: Was he a prisoner of war or was he always simply missing?

A: In the F-80C incident? He's always been missing. He was never a POW.

Q: And the B-29 crew?

A: The B-29 crew had 13 aboard. Four parachuted out and were captured; three were returned; one was not returned. The other nine were aboard the aircraft at impact.

Q: Did you see any wreckage at that site?

A: No, we did not. And at that site with Congressman Richardson, we were not allowed to roam around. They basically took us to a spot on a road, a dirt road. We pulled over and they said this is roughly the area where the excavation work would be done. At that time, they had not identified that site as one of the sites we would go to. They just said this is the kind of area we would go to of the kind of a crash site, it would be somewhere in here, somewhere... And they pointed anywhere in these hills where we could possibly be.

The significance of the crash site visit we went to with my delegation is we were allowed to roam around and move through the mountains and the hills and the valleys and talk to people, probably a little less than a kilometer as we were taking pictures.

Q: ...recover remains?

A: The joint recovery work? Yes. The main reason is to recover and identify remains so we can return them to their families.

Q: What happened to the one B-29 crew member who wasn't returned?

A: We're pursuing in that case, we don't know. We have evidence that he was in the prison camps at the time, but he was not returned to us, and we're pursuing that.

Q: You wandered around the site... This most recent visit when you wandered around that site, did you talk to people in the area?

A: We did not talk to any local witnesses in the area. There was some local buildings nearby and a village not too far away. But there were no people out working in the fields while we were walking around that we could talk to.

Q: What will the people, the surveyors, the people who go there, what will they do if there's nothing to see? I don't understand how you can...

A: That's where, as with any crash site, getting to the crash site is half the battle; finding something is the other half of the battle. The key will be to find, part of the key is hopefully to find some local witnesses. The North Koreans will help us identify some local witnesses that have lived in the area for a long period of time that were there during the crash during the war or had relatives there during the war. Oftentimes what we find in the Asian culture, in these environments, is the crash site becomes a local legacy, local lore. Everybody knows where it is, where it went down. We find someone who can pinpoint the location of the crash site. Even if it's been cultivated on top of it, our experience in Southeast Asia has shown that when you dig down five, six, seven feet, you can find a wealth of crash material at that level. So our confidence is if we can find the specific site and we dig the specific site, that we will be able to recover remains and crash site related evidence that will help us account for the pilot.

Q: Did you address at any time the issue of the American defectors that are living in North Korea? Or did you address at any time the possibility of other Americans alive, being possibly held against their will there?

A: I won't get into the specific official and unofficial discussions we had, but I did raise the issue of live American prisoners of war with my North Korean counterparts. We had also raised it with them in New York, at the time in New York as an area of interest that we need to pursue, that we have some reporting that we need to get to the bottom of. They were, as they have been in the past with U.S. congressmen and U.S. senators, who have raised this issued, noncommittal. They've maintained that they have no Americans being detained against their will in North Korea.

Q: How credible is this evidence that there may be 10 to 15 Americans alive in North Korea?

A: We have a variety of reporting, largely hearsay reporting, about these kinds of... About Americans. The number ranges broadly, somewhere between 10 and 15 are the most frequent kinds of reports that we hear. That's what we're trying to determine, is exactly how credible are these reports. If we can corroborate this information and then if we can corroborate it, what action needs to be taken after that.

To date, we have not been able to corroborate any of this information. And we have not been able to determine with any degree of sufficiency the credibility of this information.

Q: Are you going to press on this at all? You say they're noncommittal. Is this within the area of your agenda? Do you have any leverage at all? Do you intend to try?

A: Absolutely we intend to press on this, and it is specifically within my office's purview to follow up on this, and we absolutely intend to follow up on this with the North Koreans.

Q: The report that we saw on Friday referred to very compelling reports. Would you use a different adjective in describing this evidence?

A: As I've seen it, the report that you're referring to, and that's been written up in the newspapers, I think overplayed the impact of that internal report. What that report was, it was an internal working document that an analyst drafted to draw out some of the "what if" scenarios, the questions about some of the reporting, to focus some attention on it, to ask the questions that an analyst should rightfully ask about what else do we need to follow up on here, where else do we have to go for leads? What other action should we take to try and corroborate this information. So that report, that internal working report was designed for that purpose, to raise those kinds of questions in our office, amongst our analysts, so that they can put some analytic thought behind it and figure out where do we go next in an effort to try and corroborate some of this information.

Q: It does say DPMO concludes that there are these two different groups. I mean does DPMO conclude that or not? That's what the report says.

A: No. That is not an official conclusion of the organization. It's an internal document that the analyst had written to try and put his thoughts down.

Q: Did he misrepresent what the facts are then?

A: No, I don't think he misrepresented an organizational conclusion. He considers himself part of the organization. I think it was just a mixed pronoun in terms of [views]. He's citing the organization when he's citing his own personal views. But because he considers himself part of the organization, he used the organization rather than himself... When an analyst typically writes, they don't write "this analyst thinks this or that." Not necessarily.

Q: It' also represented in the report a variety of additional citing reports have been received culminating in a recent flurry, the last 60 days, of very compelling reports. What very compelling reports did you receive earlier this year?

A: We did not receive a series of very compelling reports this year. Part of that was, the analyst had an opportunity to meet with some of the North Korean defectors, so he had talked with those defectors. We'd gotten more robust or fulsome briefings from them than had been previously reported. But none of the information they provided to us was information that you could characterize as a smoking gun, or information that definitively corroborated any previous information.

Q: Those are the very compelling reports he's referring to?

A: I'm not sure what he was referring to in terms of very compelling. I'm not sure exactly what he's referring to.

Q: Do you know why this was prepared, this document?

A: As I said, this is an internal document that our analysts frequently will do as an analytic exercise to determine how are we doing, how are we looking at this information, where do we need to go next for additional information, what are the next things we can do, helps crystallize analytic thought about some of the information that we do get. Very rarely in the analytic world do you make a single decision based on a single piece of evidence. You get a pattern of evidence and you look at that pattern. So it's very common for analysts to step back at a point in time to take a look at all the information they've gotten thus far and determine if there's any clear patterns emerging, and then where do you go next.

Q: When you raised this issue when you were in Pyongyang and you got the noncommittal response, did you press at all? Did you ask to be taken out to these sites to visit them?

A: To visit with the POWs? I mean to visit with... No, they did not. They steadfastly maintain that there are none.

Q: I don't mean to quibble here, but you said they said to you no Americans are being held against their will, right?

A: Right.

Q: Did you at all think about following up to ask, can I just go talk to the Americans, even if they're not being held against their will?

A: We have asked to talk to the American defectors from the 1960s, and it's being treated as a consular issue, to try and gain access to them so that we can perhaps facilitate contact with their families. And because it's being treated as a consular issue, it's being handled by the Department of State, not by DoD. But that request has been made of the North Koreans.

Q: I thought you said the analyst who wrote this report was able to talk to some of these defectors. Did I misunderstand?

A: He was able to talk to defectors who have come out of North Korea. Korean defectors, not American defectors. Perhaps that's a misunderstanding.

Q: Also that report, wasn't it used as the basis for a briefing of the Joint Staff as well as OSD? In other words, this wasn't just an internal working document that stayed inside your office.

A: There are analysts not just within OSD and the DPMO and the POW/MIA office. There are analysts throughout the Defense Department establishment. As I said, the report is designed to stimulate thought, and energize some people to say are we getting all the information? Is there other information? How else do we corroborate this information? So there's going to be a natural dialogue amongst analysts that focus on the issue. Specifically on POW/MIA, but also in the broader context of Korea as we try to analyze the information to put in context with other information that exists on Korea.

Q: So the answer is yes, it was used as a briefing for the Joint Staff?

A: I don't believe it was used as a briefing, but there was dialogue with other analysts, yes.

Q: On which sites you're going to search, why did you leave it up to the Koreans when you could have searched sites, possibly mass grave sites and other things? Why do you search a site here, an F-80C where one American was down, when you could have pressed to go to grave sites where possibly dozens of Americans... Why did you leave it up to them?

A: That's a good question. There are two reasons, actually. We carefully selected the sites that we did posit to them. We left it up to them to demonstrate to them that our objective here is a purely humanitarian objective. There's no other agenda involved with what we're trying to accomplish. We felt that by giving them a variety of sites that they could choose from, it would be one way to demonstrate to them that that is, indeed, our objective.

From our perspective, the sites that we proposed to them all had several things in common. One, they were not near any military installations or sensitive installations. Two, they were not near any major industrial facilities or large cities that would involve maybe having to tear down houses or redirecting roads, things that would complicate their approval process. Also, we gave them a mixture of crash sites and grave sites, but to be quite honest with you, we have more experience dealing in crash sites than we do in mass grave sites, and our objective is to make identification. Not just to recover remains, but to identify those remains so that we can return them to the families. In a crash site investigation you can go and do your excavation, not recover remains from the crash site, but recover sufficient evidence from the crash site that shows that the pilot was in the aircraft at the time of the crash, perished in the crash, and therefore, you can provide closure to the family by being able to definitively state to them that their loved one died in the incident and we know what happened to them, even in the absence of being able to recover remains that we can turn over to the family.

Q: How many Americans are still listed as missing, and how many of these cases realistically could you expect to get closure on over the coming years?

A: There are currently over 8100 Americans listed as unaccounted for from the Korean War. I stated at the last press conference that I gave after the New York agreement, we would hope, our expectation is that we could recover perhaps about half of those, 3,000 to 4,000. But that estimation really is going to be geared by our experience on the ground. If we get to some of these crash sites and we discover that the 45 plus years is making it very difficult to retrieve crash site evidence or remains, that number could drop rapidly. The same once we get into mass grave sites. If we find that we're not having any luck within the mass grave sites, the number would drop even faster.

Q: As you moved around in North Korea, your movement was limited. We hear reports, of course, that people are starving and everything else. Can you give us your general impressions of what you saw in the countryside and the people in the city of Pyongyang? How does it look now?

A: Sure. These are my general observations. I wasn't there looking at the food situation, doing any sort of assessment. The World Food Program and others are there doing that. But I can tell you that in the drive from Pyongyang out to the crash site, which is about a four and a half hour drive, we did go through a number of villages and small towns. The corn cribs were empty, grain silos were empty. The crops that we saw, I would characterize as stunted or underdeveloped. We saw a lot of flood damage. Almost all the bridges on the roads which we traveled were washed out and we did a lot of having to drive the cars through the rivers themselves. On the fields that you can see from the roads, you can see a lot of silt and other leftover damage from the floods. I'm not a farmer so I can't say the effect that would be on there. But what struck me was corn, which I would expect this time of season to be knee high or better, was ankle high.

Q: Back to the analyst's report for just one question. Could you give us an example of the sort of evidence you're talking about which the author found compelling or riveting or whatever, and which you were saying is very tentative and not hard and so on?

A: I don't want to be trying to juxtapose against the author's view. His intent was to generate some thought and stimulation within the analytic community or our office, and that's what he's done, and that's what his report is designed to do. That's what we pay him to do. But the kind of reporting that he gets is frequently there's an individual who sees some caucasians or caucasian looking people, doesn't have an opportunity to talk with them so he asks another person, do you know who those people are? Do you know why they're here? The other person says I've heard they're Americans. The other key for us is, there seems to be some loose interchangeability between the words defectors, deserters, and POWs. And we don't know whether there is a loose interchangeability in how they use it, whether it's simply a status symbol, or whether they attach significant distinction to those words, as we attach significant distinction to the words.

Q: ...on that level you're talking about.

A: That's correct.

Q: You and your office, just so we put this in clear context, you and your office have reason to believe that there are whatever number, 10 to 15, whatever number, that there are Americans still in North Korea, either defectors, there against their will, prisoners of war. In other words, aside from the report we just talked about, as you move through your daily work and your investigation, you have reason to believe that there are people still there. You talked about over 8,000 missing, unaccounted for. A specific number if you can.

A: We know that there are Americans living in North Korea, because we know of the defectors from the 1960s. That's one of the complicating factors. When you get reports about this, we don't know if these reports are referring to Americans whom we know are there, or if they're referring to someone else. That's why we have to go through this corroborative process to try and determine the voracity of the reporting which we get.

We proceed on the assumption when we get these reports, every report needs to be investigated. We need to make a determination about these reports, we need to corroborate the information about the reports, and we proceed along that basis. We don't rule any report out simply because they say it's not possible that someone could have survived 40-plus years in captivity since the end of the war. We do not dismiss a report on that basis. We investigate every report, try and make an analytic determination on the voracity and the credibility of the information that's there, and based on the analytic conclusion that's reached at that point, additional steps could be taken.

Q: What have you found so far? What are your conclusions? If you've investigated all these reports, and we assume you've investigated many, many...

A: Yes. The conclusions are we have no conclusive proof that there are Americans being held against their will in North Korea.

Q: What's your opinion on that? Do you think it's possible?

A: My personal opinion is guided by what I see in my professional capacities. I have no information that shows to me or indicates to me definitively that there are Americans living against their will, being detained against their will in North Korea.

Q: What's in it for the North Koreans? Why now? What's the significance of being the first military delegation to visit since the end of the war?

A: I believe that they have made the internal political decision to cooperate with us on this humanitarian issue. I think the reason is because part of the agreed framework which dictates the development of bilateral relations between our two countries, clearly says that one of the five areas they have to cooperate on is POW/MIA. They know it's extremely important to the United States Congress. Congressman Richardson's raised it with them, as has Senator Smith and several others during trips there. When they have had delegations here that have been to Capitol Hill they've heard the same story. The United States has made it very clear to them across the board that this is an issue of prime importance for the American people and for the families and the veterans and we intend to pursue it. I believe they have made the determination if they have any hope of trying to improve relations with us, this is one of the areas they must do that with. That's why in the New York agreement it says, and we state in the press release here, this represents another positive step to the contribution of the overall improvement in relations.

Q: Did you make any payments during your trip at all? Pay for anything?

A: Other than the hotel, the food, things like that, and souvenirs. But we didn't make any payments to them for anything.

Q: What's the compensation to the... What kind of financial compensation is there from the United States to North Korea in return for this cooperation?

A: One of the agreements was that the United States will bring in all the equipment which we're going to use. We're not going to, as we do in Southeast Asia or other places, Brazil and other places we've done operations, oftentimes we lease local equipment, minimize the logistics of what we have to bring with us, but under this agreement, we will bring in everything with us to use for the equipment.

Q: And leave it there when you leave?

A: We will leave it there between the operations, but it will return... It will remain U.S. Government property and it will return at the end of the second joint operation.

Q: What do you estimate this first operation will cost? This 20 day operation?

A: I don't know. The Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii is the organization that runs these operations. I don't know what it would cost us.

Q: You mentioned earlier that the U.S. Government wants to talk to these deserters, American deserters who are there. Have the North Koreans indicated they would allow you to do that? Allow the State Department to do that?

A: They have not yet.

Q: They have not said either way?

A: They have not responded to the State Department request.

Q: Have they acknowledged that these deserters exist?

A: To my knowledge, they have not yet acknowledged that they exist.

Q: If there's any sort of evidence that Americans are being held against their will in North Korea, is this the moment to go ahead with these other forms of cooperation with them?

A: I think that's a hypothetical question that I really can't tackle. We have to make that determination first, based on the evidence that we have.

Q: I see the family groups this morning said this is not the moment to go forward with the search for remains if there's any question about Americans still being alive in North Korea and held against their will.

A: I would argue that when you have a society as closed and isolated as North Korea, you have to seize upon any opportunity you can to make inroads into that country. If you hope to get additional information, if you hope to get answers to some of the more difficult questions, you pursue whatever avenues are open to you. We have a unique opportunity right now for U.S. servicemen to go into a country that technically we're still at war with, to begin these kinds of operations, and to recover the remains of fallen comrades and return them to their families, as well as to eventually gain access to archival information and other kinds of records that the North Koreans have that can help us in this process, and as we do that and as we gain additional information, it allows us to target and ask more specific questions and get other information and relate it to other questions.

Q: Did you see things in the museum that would lead you to believe there's information there of an archival nature of some other kind that would be helpful?

A: Yes, we did. We saw, for example, a shoot-down record, and I made a point, it was in a display of anti-aircraft, a brigade hailing one of their anti-aircraft brigades. I made a point of pointing to that shoot-down record and saying these are the kinds of records which can be very helpful to us when we take your information and combine it with our information and synthesize it, it gives us more specific information about the incident, tells us about witnesses that were involved in the shoot-down that might have additional corroborating information. So I pointed that out to them and said this is why we need to begin the process of doing archival work as well as field work. They understood that process.

Q: Like a diary sort of thing?

A: No, it's generally a shoot-down record kept by an operational unit that says this unit shot down an American plane at this time at this place. Whether they witnessed anybody parachuting out of the aircraft, if anybody was captured, that kind of information.

Q: Are you briefing South Korea at all on your findings? Are any members from South Korea a part of your team?

A: There were no South Koreans on my team, but we work very closely with our allies. We talked with them before we went in about the specific things which we would be discussing. After we came out we talked with the South Koreans and gave them a full read on what we discussed.

Q: I'm not sure if I got an answer to my earlier question about whether there's any financial compensation. You talked about equipment, but is the United States making any direct payments to North Korea in return for this cooperation?

A: I won't get into the specifics that we negotiated and talked about, but we are treating this as we do our other operations around the world. So what we do will be consistent with those operations in terms of compensation for fields which are destroyed, the process of the excavating work if we have to tear up a farmer's rice field, things like that, then we will compensate for those.

Q: Are we going to pay for remains?

A: No, we are not going to pay for remains.

Press: Thank you.