Pilot death adds to Korean mystery

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The Independent Online
One of the two pilots of the US helicopter which strayed into North Korean airspace on Saturday was killed when the aircraft was forced down just north of the demilitarized zone, according to the White House yesterday. It said that according to in formation from Pyongyang, the second pilot was alive and apparently uninjured.

In a statement throwing new light on the mysterious incident, President Clinton, described the death as a "tragic and unnecessary" loss of life. He added that Bill Richardson, a Democratic Congressman in Pyongyang for previously scheduled talks on the recent US-North Korea nuclear agreement, would stay there to seek more information.

Earlier, despite pressure from the Clinton administration, North Korea had signalled that it would not be stampeded into an instant handover of the pilots, informing US officials at the border post of Panmunjom that it would only give details of their fate after its own investigation.

And even after the White House announcement, much remained obscure. At one point the North Korean news agency said the intrusion was part of a big US-South Korean exercise, allegedly involving 560 aircraft. That is denied here. Nor did the statement, saying merely that the pilot was killed "in the downing", make clear whether the unarmed OH-58C helicopter was forced to land or shot down.

An equal mystery is how and why a helicopter equipped with modern navigational instruments crossed the border in one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world, where more than a million troops face each other a across narrow neutral strip dividingthe two Koreas.

Washington denies the helicopter was spying. According to William Perry, the Defense Secretary, the OH-58C was on a three-hour routine training exercise, what he called a "terrain-familiarisation mission". Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, spoke of Washington's "very serious concerns" about the safety of the pilots.

Despite the loss of life, there is still little reason for the incident to escalate unduly. The North Korean regime, which gave Mr Richardson the information to pass back to the White House, is less intractable since the death this summer of former leader Kim Il Sung. But it remains very isolated.

Pyongyang is unlikely to want to jeopardise the economic and technological aid it is to receive after agreeing to rein its nuclear ambitions - a deal which might lead to full diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

And, however upset Washington may be, the American helicopter was simply where it should not have been.

The incident is not the first of it kind, nor the most serious. In 1977 the North shot down a US helicopter which had lost its way in the rugged hilly terrain of the area.

Three crew-members were killed and a fourth wounded. The bodies were returned three days later.