- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

U.S. and North Korea officials are to meet in Bangkok tomorrow to discuss access to American defectors living in North Korea — part of a seven-year effort to account for U.S. soldiers who never returned from the Korean War.

Officials at both the Pentagon and the State Department insisted that the talks will be very “narrowly focused” on that subject and that the latest nuclear standoff with the North will not be discussed.

“Since we began these meetings in 1996, we’ve kept them as separate humanitarian issues delinked from anything else we do with the North Koreans,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.

“In fact, that’s our policy not only in Korea but with all other countries we do this,” he said.

The Bangkok session will take place amid intense U.S. efforts to convene a multilateral meeting to discuss the nuclear standoff.

North Korea, which in April agreed to participate in talks with the United States and China in Beijing, has refused to be part of a broader forum that would include Japan and South Korea.

The Bush administration has rejected direct dialogue with Pyongyang, arguing that its nuclear weapons programs are an international issue and not one only between the United States and North Korea.

But administration officials said that the Bangkok gathering does not count as a bilateral meeting because the nuclear issue will not be on the agenda.

“There may be political differences between us in other areas, but we’ve been scrupulously careful about separating them from our personnel recovery efforts,” Cmdr. Davis said.

Another Pentagon official said that the issue of access to American defectors in the North has been raised every time since those meetings began, but the North Koreans have yet to respond positively.

The U.S. government is aware of six defectors since the 1960s — all former Army officers — but none of them veterans of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. Two of them are believed to have died, the official said.

“We hear reports about them from time to time teaching English,” he said.

The Bangkok meeting, which the official said is expected to work out a schedule for remains recovery operations for the rest of the year, comes nine months after the last session in the same city.

As in October, the six-member U.S. delegation will be led by Jerry D. Jennings, deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoners of war and missing personnel affairs. Col. Gen. Li Chon-bok of the Korean people’s army will head the North’s delegation.

Meanwhile yesterday, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii said that she had been approached by the Pentagon about relocating to Pearl Harbor a “striker brigade” for rapid forward deployment to deal with North Korean threats and terrorist moves in East Asia.

The brigade would consist of an aircraft carrier, advanced transport aircraft and other strategic resources, she said in an interview with the Japanese news agency Kyodo.

The Pentagon has brought up “the forward deployment of more resources to Hawaii, such as a carrier group or a striker brigade, moving C-17s into Hawaii, more aircraft,” Mrs. Lingle said.

A striker brigade is a more mobile group that can get to a theater a lot faster than conventional forces.

The Pentagon would not confirm that specific plan, saying only that the administration’s new defense strategy calls for restructuring of the U.S. “global posture because of the different security environment.”

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