WASHINGTON - The Pentagon on Wednesday abruptly suspended U.S. efforts to recover the remains of American soldiers from North Korea. The communist country was creating an environment that could have jeopardized the safety of U.S. workers, the Defense Department said.
No specifics were provided. The announcement came amid rising tensions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile programs and concern that it might be preparing a live nuclear test.
A senior Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had recommended halting efforts to recover the remains. Di Rita mentioned concerns about restrictions by North Korea on the use of communications devices by U.S. personnel while they are on North Korean territory. They are not allowed to call outside the country.
The Associated Press, quoting other defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details, reported that Rumsfeld's decision was less about such specifics but more about a broader unease among senior administration officials with the overall direction of North Korean policies.
The remains recovery program was suspended once before, from October 2002 to June 2003. That came after the North Koreans disclosed to a State Department envoy that they had secretly been running an active nuclear weapons program.
The recovery missions began in 1996 and are the only form of U.S.-North Korean military cooperation.
Veterans groups have lobbied to keep the recovery operations going.
The work has returned more than 220 remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War, with the U.S. government paying millions of dollars in cash to the North Korean government for logistical support. Thousands more soldiers are still missing.