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U.S. Stance on Korea: We Don’t Spy With Low-Flying Helicopters

December 30, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Throughout the deadlock with North Korea over captured Army pilot Bobby Hall, the U.S. response to charges of spying was, in effect: Sure we spy - but not with unarmed helicopters flown by newcomers at 100 feet.

One pilot with flying experience along the demilitarized zone puts it this way: ″We don’t put people at risk when we have machines that can do the job for us.″

An examination of the record and interviews with U.S. military officials suggest that ″Razorback 19,″ the Army helicopter flight into North Korea that left one pilot dead and a second in North Korean hands for 13 days, went awry as a result of bad luck, inexperience and a lack of technology to back up what turned out to be faulty human reckoning.

After nearly two weeks of increasing tension, the two sides appear to have agreed to disagree. State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said the United States secured the release of Chief Warrant Officer Hall by agreeing to express regret for the incident and working with the military in South Korea to prevent a recurrence.

But McCurry said the United States still insists the overflight was an accident.

Hall was handed over to U.S. officials at the Panmunjom truce village on the border of North and South Korea at 9:16 p.m. EST Thursday, 10:16 a.m. Friday local time.

According to U.S. officials, the flight was one of dozens that might take place daily near the demilitarized zone.

One pilot is said to have been training the other how to fly in the highly restricted air space near the border - and to stay south of a buffer zone that ranges from four to 10 miles below the border and is intended to prevent just this kind of incident.

The Army routinely flies over the region near the demilitarized zone to train in case of war, deliver supplies to ground troops and look for evidence of any North Korean incursion into the South. Pilots are particularly on the lookout for evidence of tunnels.

A pilot who has flown Army helicopters along the DMZ said it was absurd to think U.S. military commanders would rely on an unarmed helicopter to gather intelligence over the North when the military has unmanned drones, highflying spy planes, camera-equipped satellites and sophisticated eavesdropping equipment that can do the job better and more safely.

″We work hard to keep people out of harm’s way in this business,″ said the pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hall’s helicopter went down over North Korea on Dec. 17. His partner, Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon, was killed in the crash-landing and was buried Wednesday.

Though officials say the flight over North Korea was inadvertent, there’s no doubt the U.S. does spy on North Korea. Indeed, the Pentagon relied on electronic intelligence sources to first pinpoint the time of the downing.

And earlier this year, when tension with North Korea over nuclear weapons was high, Pentagon officials were able to describe in detail how many tanks and soldiers the North Koreans had clustered near the border.

In the current case, there are reasons the North Koreans might be suspicious.

The helicopter was shot down more than 10 miles northwest of a checkpoint beyond which it should not have flown. A senior military official described the landmark as easy to see.

Also, the OH-58A helicopter was part of a newly arrived battalion of Apache attack helicopters. One job of the OH-58A, as the North Koreans have said, is to precede the Apache into battle as a target spotter.

The weather was clear, with visibility of six miles.

These flights are surprisingly low-tech ventures, with pilots looking at maps on their laps and trying to spot landmarks below.

″You’re more concerned about avoiding the mountain peaks around you, and trying to use a map while avoiding them is a full-time job,″ said Retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, chief of staff of the United Nations force in South Korea during the 1970s.

Both Hall and Hilemon had arrived in Korea on Nov. 4 as part of the Apache helicopter battalion. Though an experienced pilot, Hall had flown only 10.7 hours in the restricted flight zone, called ″P518.″ It was Hilemon’s first flight in the restricted zone.

Because it is considered hardship duty, soldiers shuttle in and out of Korea for one-year tours, forcing the Army to constantly train new arrivals on life near a hostile border.

A number of other factors could well have contributed to the incident:

-The helicopter had no global positioning system equipment that could have told the pilots exactly where they were.

-Radar controllers could have issued a ″hot dog alert″ warning to the helicopter had they seen it near the border, but hilly terrain and the low altitude flight caused the aircraft to drop off radar screens.

-Border sentries had no radio link with the helicopter, and it passed overhead too quickly for them to get to their box of warning flares.

-AWACS radar planes usually patrol near the border and might have flagged down the helicopter, but they weren’t flying that day.

All this has generated repercussions within the military. The Apache battalion attached to the 17th Aviation Brigade, Hall’s unit, is barred from flying in the restricted zone pending a review. All pilots in Korea are getting refresher training. And warning procedures for flights near the DMZ are being reviewed.

It’s not being treated as a spying issue - at least in Washington.

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