U.S. Diplomat Heads for North Korea
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States undertook a new effort Tuesday to secure the release of American helicopter co-pilot Bobby Hall while insisting again that his craft was on a routine training mission when it ″regrettably″ and mistakenly crossed into North Korea.
As mid-level State Department diplomat Thomas Hubbard flew to Seoul to meet with South Korean and U.S. officials before going to Pyongyang, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., said there was a split in the North Korean hierarchy between civilians who want to resolve the incident ″and the military, which apparently doesn’t.″
Richardson, a House Intelligence Committee member who was touring North Korean nuclear sites when the helicopter went down Dec. 17, said the military was ″upping the ante and is most recalcitrant in dealing with the United States.″
Administration officials here declined to speculate about any internal struggle in Pyongyang, saying they wanted to focus on securing the release of the captured Army chief warrant officer. The pilot, David Hilemon, perished in the incident. Last week, his remains were turned over to U.S. authorities.
Over the weekend, the United States delivered to the North Korean military in Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, a letter expressing regret, saying the helicopter had strayed due to a navigational error, and calling for Hall’s prompt release.
American and North Korean military officers met again Tuesday. ″There wasn’t anything conclusive that happened there,″ Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman, said.
Hubbard, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was dispatched Monday after the North Korean government wrote to the United Nations asking for the United States to send a representative to discuss Hall’s repatriation.
The U.S. officials here, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said they continued to be hopeful the Brooksville, Fla., man would be liberated soon. Richardson, however, had hoped Hall would be freed by Christmas Day. He was not allowed to visit Hall but was assured the co-pilot of the Army OH-58C helicopter was safe.
Meanwhile, the effort to free Hall appeared to take an ominous turn Tuesday when North Korea claimed he had been on a spy mission and said the United States had to apologize.
The North Korean news agency declared that all facts proved the helicopter’s intrusion was ″a deliberate act of espionage.
″In view of the seriousness of the incident, we cannot but investigate the truth of the incident more deeply,″ the agency said.
McCurry responded, ″We categorically reject that accusation. It’s entirely unfounded.″
Declining to analyze the North Korean power structure, the U.S. spokesman said ″we know too little about the North Korean government to speculate.″
In Seoul, Hubbard kept a low profile. Reporters were not permitted to record his arrival in Seoul or his planned crossing of the demilitarized zone Wednesday.
Even before the incident, U.S. and private analysts wondered about the succession in Pyongyang following the death July 8 of longtime leader Kim Il Sung. The tough line on Hall could mean that military hard-liners were vying for control with Kim Jong Il, the fallen leader’s son.
Amid the uncertainty, the United States concluded an agreement with North Korea that ends a nuclear program that produced weapons-grade uranium in exchange for help in building non-threatening electric nuclear generators.
Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, ranking Democrat on the House International Affairs Committee, said the Hall situation could affect the agreement.
″It’s difficult for me to see the Congress doing that unless this airman is returned,″ Hamilton said.