N. Korea Releases U.S. Pilot Americans Refuse to Admit to Espionage

Article excerpt

U.S. Army helicopter pilot Bobby Hall, looking weary but all right, walked to freedom today, ending a 13-day crisis that threatened to plunge relations between the United States and communist North Korea back to Cold War levels.

The South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul said Hall had crossed the border in the truce village of Panmunjom at 11:16 a.m. (8:16 p.m. Thursday, St. Louis time). The Pentagon confirmed the release.

Hall, captured after his helicopter went down in North Korea Dec. 17, was released after the United States publicly expressed regret for the incident - but did not admit to spying as North Korea had charged.

Hall, 28, looked tired as he crossed the border but seemed to be in good health, with no visible injuries, according to South Korea's MBC radio.

He was flown by helicopter to the U.S. military hospital in Seoul for a medical checkup and debriefing, the radio said. Harvey Perritt, a Pentagon spokesman, said Hall could be back in Florida as early as this afternoon.

U.S. and North Korean officials agreed to a written understanding saying the helicopter "accidentally strayed into North Korea," State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said in Washington Thursday.

Clinton this week dispatched Thomas Hubbard, deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to work for Hall's release amid concern that the incident would jeopardize a fragile agreement over North Korea's nuclear program.

The breakthrough followed intense negotiations. At first, the United States tried to avoid appearing too conciliatory while refraining from issuing threats that could push the North Koreans into delaying the release of the pilot.

In securing Hall's release, Hubbard did not give in to two of North Korea's demands: that the United States apologize for spying and that it agree to hold direct bilateral military talks that could lead to a peace treaty between the two countries.

The resolution did not seem to herald any change in the relationship of distrust and suspicion between the two countries. But the successful outcome has sufficient ambiguity to allow North Korea to present it as a victory for its side.

Speaking in the White House briefing room moments after talking with Hall by telephone, Clinton said the United States had stuck to its commitments to South Korea and to its own policy in negotiating Hall's release.

"Chief Warrant Officer Hall was held for too long after his helicopter strayed off course on a routine training mission," Clinton said. "But we are very glad that he has been released."

He added, "We had a good visit, and he said he was feeling well. …