US relief over Korean pact

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The Clinton administration was last night congratulating itself on saving its nuclear accord with North Korea while successfully securing the release of Warrant Officer Bobby Hall.

Mr Hall, the helicopter pilot released by North Korea 13 days after he was shot down, was expected to return to the US overnight. The delicate negotiations in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, ended the threat to the accord signed in October which is designed to stop North Korea gaining the capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Mr Hall, looking pale and drawn and wearing the same flying suit he wore when he was shot down on 17 December, crossed the heavily-fortified Korean border late on Thursday. After a medical and debriefing he flew to his home in Florida.

The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Hubbard, who negotiated Mr Hall's release, said he had "two rather difficult days" in Pyongyang. North Korea wanted the US to apologise formally for spying and agree to hold direct military talks. The USexpressed "sincere regret for this incident and agrees to contacts in an appropriate forum designed to prevent such incidents in future".

The incident started when a lightweight Army OH-58A helicopter on a training flight lost its way close to the border because ground markings were obscured by snow. The pilot, David Hilemon, was intending to train Mr Hall in flying through mountainous terrain in the middle of the Korean peninsula by flying up and down valleys close to the border.

Us officials say it is not wholly surprising that Mr Hilemon lost his way - he had been in Korea only six weeks and had just 10.5 hours flying experience there. With 20 inches of snow on the ground, he was apparently unable to see landmarks and flew intoNorth Korea, where the helicopter, which flies at only 90mph, was shot down almost immediately. According to North Korea, the helicopter ignored warning shots and was brought down within four miles of the border.

Gen Gary Luck, the senior US commander in South Korea, has grounded the 38 helicopters in the same unit and ordered refresher courses for all pilots flying near the border.

The US will now go ahead with delivery of heavy oil to North Korea, part of the pact under which the US will help North Korea meet its energy means in return for shutting down a nuclear reactor making weapons-grade material.