Clinton Pushes for Release of Surviving Pilot
WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton vowed today to press for an ″early resolution″ in winning the release of an Army helicopter pilot downed in North Korea, although said he had no details to offer at this time.
Clinton also said he had called the families of the two aviators earlier today, offering condolences to the family of the one who was killed.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, voiced hope that the incident does not need to unsettle fragile diplomatic relations with the communist state.
North Korean officials, communicating through a U.S. congressman visiting Pyongyang, say one pilot of a U.S. Army helicopter was killed and the other captured when the chopper strayed across the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas into North Korean territory Saturday.
The death of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon of Clarksville, Tenn., was the most serious U.S.-North Korean military incident since the 1970s, and came at a time of tentative steps toward normalization of relations and negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program.
″I called the families of the two soldiers involved today to express my concern and in the case of the gentleman who was killed, my condolences to the family,″ Clinton said.
″I told them what I can tell you: I’ve worked on this all weekend. I’m going to keep working on it. We’re working toward an early resolution on it and we’re doing the very best we can.″
He said he had no further details to offer at this time.
″I have nothing else to say at this time except that it’s a high priority, we’re working on it and we’re going to do our best to resolve it,″ he said, taking a single question on Korea at a news conference called to outline his spending-cut proposals.
The administration was pressing for the prompt return of Hilemon’s body and the release of the second pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall of Brooksville, Fla.
Clinton avoided any public criticism of North Korea’s handling of the matter. ″This tragic loss of life was unnecessary,″ the president said earlier in a low-key statement.
″We’re going to continue to press very hard for the return of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon’s body and Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall,″ press secretary Dee Dee Myers said today.
″We’re hopeful this will be resolved quickly and it will not have an effect on the nuclear agreement,″ she said.
CIA Director James Woolsey, speaking on CNN’s ″Late Edition,″ said Sunday there was ″no indication at this point″ that the North Korean military had responded to the incident by going on alert or initiating troop movements.
Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who happened to be visiting Pyongyang when the helicopter went down, has become the main contact between the two sides.
While North Korean military officials, in talks Sunday at the Panmunjom truce village, refused to divulge information on the pilots, officials in the capital told Richardson that Hilemon had died and that Hall had survived without injury.
Clinton said Richardson ″is staying in North Korea for now″ to help resolve the matter.
Details of the incident remained sketchy. North Korea said an ″enemy″ aircraft was shot down Saturday, after the OH-58C helicopter wandered across the heavily fortified border.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, quoting an unnamed source, said North Korean troops opened fire when the U.S. helicopter tried to take off after landing on the northern side of the border.
U.S. officials stressed that the unarmed observation helicopter was on a routine mission when it apparently strayed across the border. The officials said they had no independent confirmation the helicopter was shot down.
″The Defense Department has launched a full investigation of the circumstances that led to this tragic loss on a routine training flight,″ Defense Secretary William Perry said in a statement.
The incident was the first involving a U.S. helicopter since 1977, when North Korea shot down an aircraft that inadvertently flew into North Korean territory, killing three crewmen and injuring a fourth. The survivor and the bodies were returned three days later.
Tensions along the border were at their worst then, a year after North Korean military guards axed to death two American soldiers at the truce village.
This time, both sides have more at stake in attaining a quick resolution.
In October, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached an agreement under which the Koreans agreed to freeze its nuclear program, which is suspected of being a cover to develop nuclear weapons. In exchange, the United States is taking initial steps toward normalizing relations and an international group led by South Korea and Japan have agreed to provide the North with two new nuclear energy reactors worth some $4 billion.
Some members of Congress have complained that the United States gave away too much, and a prolonged crisis over the aviator could reinforce the argument that the North Koreans can’t be trusted.
Donna Hall, wife of the surviving aviator, wept when contacted by The Associated Press at their home in Brooksville, Fla.
″I’m elated that my husband is safe, but my heart goes out to the family of the other man,″ Mrs. Hall said, as she cried what she described as ″tears of joy.″