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DoD News Briefing: Alan Liotta, Deputy Director Defense Prisoner-of-War/Missing Personnel Office

Presenters: Alan Liotta, Deputy Director Defense Prisoner-of-War/Missing Personnel Office
August 11, 1997 11:00 PM EDT

Alan Liotta, Deputy Director Defense Prisoner-of-War/Missing Personnel Office

THE MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to be able to introduce Mr. Alan Liotta to you. He is the deputy director of the Defense Prisoner-of-War/Missing Personnel Office, and he is here today to brief you on the latest joint recovery operations between the United States and North Korea which have just concluded, resulting in the recovery of four sets of remains believed to be Americans.

I will caution you that he is just in on the red-eye, and should he pass out or something while he is standing here, do not panic. We will take care of him; we will feed him some coffee. But, please, Alan.

MR. LIOTTA: Good morning. What I would like to do is start off with a few prepared remarks, and then I'll be glad to take any questions that you might have.

Right now, I want to start off by noting that we are halfway through the events which we have planned with North Korea for 1997, and two of the four events have been completed, and both have gone extremely well. The first was the joint recovery effort, which ended last week, in the successful recovery of four remains of American soldiers.

That operation is the second joint operation which we have done with North Korea since an agreement was reached with them last year, in 1996. The first, you will recall, was done last year, in July of '96, and resulted in the recovery of the remains of one U.S. solider who was identified and returned to his home in Louisiana and buried there.

We have two additional operations scheduled for later this year. The next one will begin when the team goes into North Korea on the 19th of August. The advance team arrives on the 19th, the main body on the 23rd. They will conduct an operation for 20 days, as did this first team. And then the third operation will begin on the first week of October and end at the end of October.

All of the operation are going to occur in the same general area. On the map you can see an orange dot. This is Unsan (?) County. It's in the northwestern part of North Korea, and it's an area where the United States 8th Calvary fought some very vicious battles against Chinese Communist forces in the fall of 1950. The remains that we recovered last year were recovered from this general area, and the three operations this year involve battle locations with the 1st Battalion, the 2nd Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion.

The operation that was just completed involved units associated with the 1st Battalion, and those remains we recovered we believe are all associated with the 1st Battalion. The second operation is scheduled to cover areas involving fighting by the 2nd Battalion and, not surprisingly, the third will be involving areas of the 3rd Battalion.

In the general area, though, in this arc where the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions were, we believe, our records indicate there were losses of about 350 American soldiers in that general battlefield area. And so we're hopeful that these three recovery efforts will lead to the recovery of many of those remains.

The second event, which just recently occurred and, in fact, will end tomorrow, is for the first time the North Koreans have allowed us to do joint archival research in their military war records. And we have had five persons, four from my office and one from the State Department, in North Korea for this past week working in their military records and war museums in an effort to get additional archival information which can help lead to answers involving the United States unaccounted-for.

The reports from the team this past week have been extremely optimistic and favorable. My understanding is that the North Koreans have shared a great amount of information with the team, including unit histories, anti-aircraft shoot-down logs, some personal war records.

They are also working with the team to allow them -- the museum has a considerable amount of wreckage, and they are allowing the team to go through the records to copy serial numbers down, which will help us in accounting efforts in determining individuals that may have been lost. And they also are working so that we can copy all identification tags, ID cards, and other things which might be there that involve U.S. forces.

This is the first time we have done this kind of work with the North Koreans before, and it was a result of negotiations and an agreement we reached with them this year in May. It's been interesting. The teams report to me, it's been that the North Koreans are leery, not in the sense of sharing information, but more in the sense of what the United States is going to do with the information.

Their particular concern is that we're going to use it for some political purpose to criticize them, and the team has spent a considerable amount of time educating the North Koreans on why we want archival information and how we would use it in our overall work in our analysis, and also showing how we used archival information which we collect from other parts of the world in losses associated there, or cross-referencing against other information which we have for losses located in other parts of the world.

That concludes my brief statement. I'll be glad to take any questions. Yes?

Q: Is this effort aimed specifically at just folks who are killed in action over there, or is it also aimed at folks who just went missing over there and could be part of the phenomenon of folks who are MIA and the whereabouts are just unknown?

A: We referred to this issue as having three major tent poles, and each of the tent poles are really of equal length. The first involves the reports of men who are unaccounted for and who were last known alive or possibly alive still in communist hands, the second is involving individuals who we know perished but whose remains were never recovered, and the third involves archival research.

Each of these is intertwined with the other. The archival research is the key because it can provide answers to either of the two, but the recovery work can provide answers because if we can get to an aircraft crash site where we don't know the fate of the men in that aircraft but we can do a recovery at that site and we learn information, we can find out either that they perished in the crash or that they were able to get away from the aircraft, and that will lead us into new areas.

Q: Does the archival research include records of any of the POW camps that the North Koreans ran?

A: We have asked to get the information. We have asked for those kinds of data. I have not seen all of the teams' reports, and so I don't know specifically whether they saw those kinds of records, but it is a key focus for us and one that we're trying to get information to. Yes?

Q: What can you tell us about this recently declassified Air Force report that fits in the category that you were talking about, of people last known to be alive? Is that something that's an active lead that you're following up, or what can you tell us of what you know about that particular incident?

A: I have not seen that specific report. As you heard, I just flew back in but I did see the AP report which discussed it and made mention of it. And what I'd like to do is put it in context, that, as you know from last year when I met with you before, and as we've testified in Congress, we have several reports like this; and there was an ongoing effort since the end of the war to try and account for some of the Americans, particularly U.S. Air Force pilots who we knew were alive in communist hands at one time but whose fate was undetermined at the time of Operation Big and Little Switch.

We're still trying to piece that puzzle together. The report that you reference is one of those pieces of the puzzle. And the key to the archival work is, in fact, collecting all of those kinds of reports and putting them together so that we can construct this puzzle to learn what happened to the individual men.

In this kind of a report, one of the things to keep in mind that we're trying to do is the report, at least from what I read in the AP article, appeared to be a summary report, not actually the first-hand report that led the analysts to put that report together to reach their conclusions. One of the things which my analysts are doing right now is trying to reach back and find those specific first-hand reports that the analysts used to make those summary reports so that we can understand their logic and rationale as to why they thought some men may have been alive or why they thought some men may have survived their incidents.

One of the things that we've found is it's been a difficult task just finding the U.S. records on a lot of these issues, and we've had people out across the United States over the last year and a half canvassing U.S. military archives, presidential libraries, and other places in an effort to locate these records so that we can make the assessment.

The other thing that we have done is we've talked to many of the individuals who were responsible at the time for putting together these lists or these studies, and one of the things which we learned from them is that in many instances they did not know for sure the fates of some of the men, and their operating guidance at the time was if you don't know, or even if you think the man perished, put him on the list that's going to be turned over to the North Koreans and the Chinese; put the onus of responsibility on the communists to answer the question for us, and we'll let it sort itself out later.

Q: Is it possible or plausible that any of these men could still be alive, or does that just raise false hopes?

A: I don't want to speculate because it could raise false hopes, but I will tell you that the U.S. Government's position is, is we treat each and every one of these reports seriously when we receive it. We investigate it, we follow up on it, we attempt to corroborate it, and we treat each one of them as though this might be the one that is, in fact, factual and true.

Yes, in the back.

Q: Did you find any significant change in North Koreans' willingness to help the American team to investigate and to get back the records over there? Was there any improvement, or how can you explain?

A: Yes, there was some improvement and some things which we measure success oftentimes in small steps, and we saw several small steps that occurred in this operation. The first was the operation began under significantly reduced tensions compared to last year. Last year's operation began basically under gunpoint, with our team escorted everywhere they went. It ended in a much more relaxed environment and a general sharing of information between the two teams, the North Korean team and the U.S. team.

This operation began with the atmosphere where the last operations ended. There was no tension. There were some exchanges of information on how we should go forward. There was a production of witnesses and bringing eyewitnesses forward who could lead us to grave sites or places where they believed Americans may have been buried, and so we were very pleased with that.

The second big change that I would note is that we negotiated this year for an agreement that would allow us to have direct communication between the site and Pyongyang. And we asked for satellite communications but the North Koreans were nervous about that, and they authorized us only to use HF radio. The problem was the team had difficulty communicating with the HF radio between the site and Pyongyang, and so they asked the North Koreans if they could move their antennae to a higher mountain top to provide better line of sight to Pyongyang, and the North Koreans agreed and allowed that team to move their antennae. That's a request they easily could have denied if they had wanted to.

And the other sign that we saw that was positive on the joint recovery effort was we agreed this year that the North Koreans would provide standby helicopter support in the case of a medical evacuation, and we asked for an effort to test that helicopter support since we wanted to see for ourselves that it would be working so that we knew the team would be safe.

Last year we asked for this and were not allowed to have helicopter support and not even allowed to talk to a medical corpsman who would fly on that helicopter. This year we did receive helicopter support, and two of my officers were permitted to board a North Korean military helicopter and fly from Pyongyang to Unsan to the site and then back to the hospital in Pyongyang to evaluate the helicopter support.

And so all of those are things which we saw as very positive signs and a show of good faith and cooperation. There's a question back here?

Q: Did the archival research help you at all in finding the remains of the four servicemen that you just found?

A: No, because the archival research happened after the joint recovery ended, and what principally helped us there was the location of local witnesses, villagers, who know the stories and the lores of where Americans may be buried and could provide testimony to the team.

Q: Any guess why talks will bog down in New York over shapes of table and schedules and agendas, yet this operation quietly just motors along pretty consistently? Why is that?

A: I really can't say anything about the other talks in New York, since I'm not involved with those. I don't know anything about that.

I can say, in regards to our talks and our success, that I believe that much of the success comes from the fact that we've been very careful to delineate this issue as a humanitarian issue separate from any other issue and one that's really a soldier-to-solider issue. Soldiers understand the costs of war. Soldiers understand the sacrifices that they have to pay, whether they are North Korean soldiers or American soldiers or soldiers from anywhere else in the world. And I believe that the reason we've had the success and we've gotten them to cooperate with us and do this is because we've been able to maintain it at that level.

Q: What representation have the North Koreans made to you as to why they have rejected U.S. requests to interview any of the -- I think there are four U.S. servicemen who defected to the North who still live up there somewhere?

A: That's correct.

Q: What's your understanding of their motivation for saying no, and how strongly has the U.S. pushed that request?

A: We've pushed very hard the request, both through the State Department and the Defense Department. And during our May and June negotiations this year with the North Koreans we made it a key element of the issue of live Americans and also the defectors that we wanted access to them to be able to interview them.

What they have told us is basically that they have tabled it; it's something that they think can happen in the future, but not something that can happen at this time. They have frequently tried to tie it to the issue of what they call "unconverted, long-term prisoners," North Koreans who are still in South Korea. And the South Koreans are concerned, obviously, about some South Koreans who are in North Korea.

And when that issue comes up, we respond to them that that's an issue that they need to talk directly with the South Koreans about; it's something that hopefully if the Four Party talks go well, they will have a mechanism to resolve that issue; but it's separate and distinct from our interest in talking to any Americans who are in North Korea.

Q: What kind of information do you have about what kind of information those four individuals might have, in terms of your intelligence or what those folks might have seen in their X number of years up in North Korea, how much time they might have spent in POW camps before they defected?

A: We have limited information. What we do know is that there were six Americans who defected between the 1960's and the 1980's. Two have died. There's four still living in North Korea.

Our understanding is that they worked in the government or in the military for some element, basically teaching western ways and western functions, although if they went in the sixties how much that applies to the 1990's I can't really say. But that's our understanding of what they do and what their role is there, and our understanding is that they are not restricted, that they may even have families and be generally assimilated as much as they could possibly be, I guess, into North Korea.

Q: What sort of change did the team see in the general environment in terms of, you know, the reports of famine and that kind of thing between the latest trip and the previous one?

A: Well, it was difficult because not all the members of the team were the same because we used different people for them, so they don't have the same sort of perspective from before and after or before and later, and they did not report very much of that since that's not the focus of their mission. The reports came in primarily as status reports of what was happening with the mission.

The limited report information that I did see, however, during their information was that the further you got away from Pyongyang, the more the conditions deteriorated.

Yes?

Q: that said that there were 8,100 soldiers missing after the Korean War. Can you confirm that? Is that accurate?

A: We currently -- the U.S. Government total right now is officially currently more than 8,100. I can't be more precise than that because one of the things that my office has been focused on is trying to, in fact, develop a specific count of how many men actually are unaccounted for from the Korean War. The U.S. Government, since the end of the war, has maintained three separate lists. Not surprisingly, the numbers on those lists and the names on those lists did not match up.

My office, for the last year and a half now has put a full-faith effort into consolidating those lists and comparing them and getting a final list, and my understanding is that by the end of this year we should have that list finalized.

Q: Do you know what regions specifically?

A: That's throughout the entire Korean theater, so that's North Korea, now South Korea, as well as men who were lost on aircraft or ships that were coming into the theater or going out of the theater and something happened. That's the total theater losses.

Yes?

Q: You may have already gone over this, but could you give us a description of the site exactly, the breadth, miles or how large an area it is that you're looking for these other 350 perhaps, and also are you coming across any Chinese remains that you can tell immediately that they are, and if so, what happens to them if you do come across them?

A: The general area -- as I said, there's three specific areas where we are right now and, in fact, the base camp which the team established for this operation will be the same base camp they use for the second operation. The three units were -- the total span was about three kilometers, about three-and-a-half kilometers from the northernmost end to the southernmost end of the arc that I mentioned earlier. And so we're in a very relatively confined area as to where the team is looking there. With regard to movement about that, that largely depends on witnesses and what the witnesses tell us to do.

Another sign -- a question was asked earlier about flexibility. Another sign of flexibility was that at one point during this mission the team asked for and received permission to actually split in two and to have two smaller units working in two separate sites concurrently. That was not a previously agreed upon point but one the North Koreans allowed us to do so the team could maximize its effort in country.

Q: Is it mountains? Is it farm land?

A: It's generally flat land and farm land kind of area.

Q: And that's where the battle --

A: That's where the battle -- the battle occurred in October and November of 1950, and it was really the first large battle involving the Chinese as they came across the border and engaged U.S. forces.

With regard to your other question of Chinese remains, we have not found any Chinese remains that I'm aware of. Should we come across other remains, including other allied remains that we find, the difficulty, of course, would be when you immediately find some remains, it may not be notified that it's British or Canadian or Turkish or any of our allies.

But the anthropologists can make many determinations on the scene, and we are talking to other allied nations as to how they would like remains, if we do come across them, recovered and whether they would like to repatriate them.

Yes?

Q: Can you discuss the payment aspects of this? Are you sort of greasing the skids of all this with cash when you're out there so you're providing money to these people and that's one reason why they are cooperating?

A: That's a good question and, no, we're not greasing the skids. The agreement which we reached with the North Koreans this year is for a set payment for the operation, and it's based upon our experience in last year's operation.

The benefit of having gone to the country and done an operation there is we now know what it costs us to do an operation. We know the cost of the land which we use, the labor which we use, the fuel which we consume, all those things. And the negotiations this year, the costs which we projected out were based on exactly what we would do compared to the operation last year.

So the agreement this year called for each operation, we paid the North Koreans $100,000. Fifty percent of it is paid before the operation begins. Fifty percent of it is paid after the operation ends, and that is because we have to buy fuel and things for the equipment, the jeeps and other equipment which we lease, so we need to have some of it paid up front, and then afterwards the bill is squared. But it's the same amount for each of the three operations for 1997.

Q: Is this paid in cash, or do you write a check out? And who do you give it to, and how do you know where that money goes?

A: Well, we actually tried to do electronic funds transfers, and the North Koreans aren't quite there yet with EFTs, but we're working there. So right now it's paid to cash. It's paid in cash to the Korean People's Army of Panmunjom.

Q: Are you going to take a big bag?

A: Actually, $50,000. I've never seen $50,000 in cash, but I was told it's not really all that big of a stack of money when you put all hundred-dollar bills there.

Q: Just to clarify, is it your contention that the North Koreans aren't making a profit on this, that basically you're reimbursing for legitimate expenses?

A: They are not making a profit on this, and we are reimbursing them for legitimate expenses which we can justify and that we know we're expending.

This question in the back here?

Q: Roughly, how many people are on these teams?

A: We're restricted right now to 10-member teams that go into North Korea. There are eight members that go to the site, several of whom are from the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, one of whom is from my office, and then there are two officers who remain in Pyongyang to provide facilitation of communications from the site back to Washington and Honolulu, and also to interface with any senior official out of the foreign ministry or defense ministry to resolve problems the team may have.

That's the reason we wanted to have the HF radio communication from the site to Pyongyang, so that we could then get through. Last year we did not have that, and so we in Washington and in Honolulu, where the Central Identification Laboratory is, sat mainly in the dark, not knowing the success or failure of what was happening with the team at the time because of the limited communications.

Q: (Inaudible) in operations in other parts of the world. Can you amplify that?

A: Certainly. We currently have operations that go on every other month in Vietnam, and in the months we are not in Vietnam we are in Southeast Asia. And to compare numbers for you, we average about 100 personnel per operation in Vietnam, and 40 personnel per operation in Laos.

We also do operations in Cambodia, and the team has recovered -- we did an operation in China early this year, we will do another one in China in October of this year, and they have also done operations in other parts of South Asia, Papua, New Guinea and places where we've had World War II losses.

Q: Have you all come across any information regarding any potential transfers of American or allied POWs from North Korean or Chinese hands to the Russians, and is that a goal of your archival research, to get your hands on anything that would corroborate those charges?

A: That is an area where we're investigating and looking into. It's a specific area of concern for the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POWs, which is a bilateral commission between the United States and Russia to investigate the charges that Americans may have been transferred from either the Vietnam, Korean, or Cold War theaters into the Soviet Union. They continue that investigation, using Soviet archives as well as information we collect in Korean archives and other places to help resolve that answer.

Q: Have you come across any anecdotal information or archival information on that subject so far in your work in North Korea?

A: We've come across some archival information and also some witness testimony that we believe is compelling and should be followed up, but we have not found anything that would directly say, in fact, we have proof that this occurred.

Q: What about ID'ing those you've found? Do you know how long that will take or whether it's possible?

A: I believe it will be possible. The identification process can range from several months to almost a year, but we're optimistic, however, based on the operation last year, where the identification was made in a very short period of time, about 60 days, that we will have a similar success here because of the information we had going into the site.

And also we did recover some unique items, a dental prosthesis, which I believe is a dental bridge, which will be unique to an individual. We did recover a set of dog tags and an identification card, which should also help us in the identification process. So we're optimistic that it will go well.

Q: Can you release now with the dog tags any information?

A: I cannot. I understand there was one name that was released but, as I said, I just got back and so I haven't seen that name yet.

Q: Can you describe the site? Is it basically virgin and untouched since the battle, or do you get the sense it's been picked over by locals or villagers? Is the battle site left untouched since the battle itself?

A: My understanding is that the battle site -- it's been 40 years, so it's not exactly as it was during the battle, and farmers are there and living on it. But roughly the terrain is roughly the same as what it was at the time of the conflict, and I can tell you that the sites, last year's site, and my understanding this year's as well, were considered to be pristine sites; that is, they were not sites which the North Koreans have gone and planted remains there so that we would find them. That is something that is easily distinguishable by the anthropologist when he is on site. He can tell immediately if the soil has been disturbed in a way that evidence may have been planted for us to find. That was not the case last year nor this year.

Q: What's it like working with the North Koreans, just on a personal level?

A: My experience, my personal experience has been, working with them both in Pyongyang and in negotiations here in the United States is that we're constrained largely by our high degree of mistrust and lack of trust. We have been working in an effort in the very beginning to assure them of the humanitarian nature of this mission, why we were pursuing it, why it's important to the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government and to the families and the Congress.

I think we've gotten past that with them. I think they understand that significance, which is why we're moving forward. Last year we were scheduled to do two operations. We only did one because the submarine incident occurred and we could not do the second operation.

This year we're scheduled to do three, and it looks like we're on track to do those three operations. My expectation is that next year we will be able to increase those operations. We will also be able to increase the number of archival teams we put in country working there, and we will also begin to get some answers about the live prisoners.

Q: What is the senior-most level that you've dealt with in the North Korean Government, military, or part of their bureaucracy?

A: The senior-most level that I personally have dealt with has been a two-star general in the North Korean military, the Korean People's Army; and in the foreign ministry side the most senior level we dealt with is an ambassador level just below the vice-foreign-minister level.

Q: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is in North Korea right now. Did you report these findings to him and to other members of Congress already?

A: He did receive briefings before he left on his trip, yes, and the mission was still ongoing at the time when he departed.

Q: Over a 20-day period, if you have 350 people unaccounted for in the area, what's your optimum amount that you could hope for to even begin to recover, given the full number of people that you have on each team?

A: Well, the optimum amount we hope to recover is 350, but the reality is we don't really know for sure, and this is part of our learning curve in North Korea right now. Whether the four is a realistic amount of what we're going to find as we do these operations, and we're going to find that many of the sets of remains have just deteriorated over the 40 years that they've been there or have been moved or lost because of other reasons; or whether, in fact, we just hit four this time, but the next operation we may get 20 or 30 would purely be speculation.

Our expectation is when we've completed these three operations in this general area and we review what we've done in our procedures, we will be in a much better position by the end of the year to then begin to assess just how many of the 8,100 we are going to be able to recover and identify.

Q: You talked about the deteriorating situation as you move farther away from the North Korean capital that some of your team observed. Could you describe what you mean by that? Did you see starving people? Did you see hungry people? Were people coming up to the team asking for money? What happened?

A: Again, I had very limited reporting from the team on that because that was not their objective, and all that we had was a sentence or so that said further away you move from Pyongyang, the more the conditions deteriorated. I don't have any other details beyond that.

Q: Could you give just sort of an idea of -- I'm not familiar with how your operation works. What do you actually do when you get to a site? Technologically, how do you do it?

A: It's done like an archaeological dig, and the person that oversees the operation itself is the anthropologist, who is the senior military officer in command of the overall unit because the unit itself is basically military officers.

But the anthropologist is the guy who is in charge and dictates the site, and what they typically will do is they first interviw local witnesses to try and find, and they have archival information, and they go to where they believe is the best possible location for remains. And the anthropologist, also using his scientific expertise, can look for depressions in the ground that might be a burial area or other places that he believes remains may be recovered.

They then grid the site, usually by three-by-three squares using rope, and then they dig each one of those squares separately, and then they sift the soil through large sifters, looking for remains. If they find remains, then they will dig out to where it looks like the remains stop.

In this case, what they found was a pit where four bodies had been thrown into a pit and then covered with soil. So they would dig to where they found the soil disturbances to be from 40 years ago, where the pit ended, and then they would dig down until where they hit sterile soil at the bottom, and it's a very scientific, archaeological dig, much as you would see anywhere else in the world on a true archaeological expedition.

And that's the expertise that the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii has. And as I said, they do these all over the world, and they are very good at what they do.

Q: Do you have time for one more question? Do you use satellite imagery, commercial or otherwise, to look at these sites ahead of time?

A: We use all the resources available to us to help us assess where we need to be going and also to corroborate any information which we may have that can guide us in our search for the accounting.

Q: Do you use satellite imagery commercially, for example?

A: I don't know that we use commercial satellite imagery, LANDSAT and things like that. I don't know that we do that.

The last point that I would like to leave you with before I have to depart is one that I think is fairly significant and can often get lost, just as I think a comment was made earlier that as we go about this seemingly quiet work as we do it.

But that is between July of this year until October, at the end of October of this year, with the exception of about 21 days, we will have had a sustained U.S. military presence in North Korea conducting this archival research and joint recovery work and doing the hard work that needs to be done to help us account for our American soldiers that still have not come home from the Korean War.

Thank you very much

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