Washington — America's MIA-POW drama is taking on a new dimension. Spurred by the debate over whether some American soldiers are still being held in Southeast Asia, a growing number of American Korean War veterans are pushing for a full accounting of those who did not return from Korea in the early 1950s.
Two private groups are now separately discussing the issue with North Korean officials.
These unofficial contacts, sources say, could yield an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to travel to that communist country some time in the next year to recover the remains of missing personnel.
``No one has been invited yet, but there is the possibility of a near-future breakthrough,'' says Thomas Gregory, chairman of the MIA-POW committee of the Chosin Few, an association of some 2,300 Korean War veterans who fought in the epic battle at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. The Chosin Few is one of the groups now talking with the North Koreans.
The other group is made up of a handful of people, not all of them veterans, associated with Robert Dumas. Mr. Dumas is a Korean War veteran who has led a 33-year personal crusade to determine the fate of those who disappeared in the war.
These initiatives illustrate the growing activism of a group often labeled ``the first forgotten veterans.'' Analysts point out that those who fought in Korea returned to the United States to face the same kind of public indifference later accorded returning Vietnam veterans. But it's the issue of missing soldiers, say the veterans, that still bothers them three decades later.
According to Pentagon records, 8,177 Americans were never accounted for after the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953 and brought together troops from 16 nations to fight under the United Nations banner. (By comparison, 2,430 Americans disappeared during the much longer conflict in Indochina.)
More troubling, however, are the 2,233 members of the combined United Nations forces - including 389 Americans - who were known to be in communist prison camps at the time of the ceasefire, but who were not among those repatriated. The communists insist that all prisoners were turned over in 1953.
``You're not going to settle Vietnam until you settle this forgotten war first,'' says Dumas, whose younger brother is one of the prisoners of war who never came back from North Korea.
For decades, Dumas was virtually alone in his campaign to press for a full accounting of the lost men. But recent events have done much to enlarge his one-man battle into a wider and more mature movement.
Last year, Vietnam offered to help the US locate the remains of servicemen killed in Indochina.
If the Vietnamese could do this, the veterans reasoned, why couldn't the North Koreans?
It's a touchy problem - not just from the standpoint of US relations with the nearly hermetically-sealed communist regime in North Korea, but also as a domestic issue with implications for the families of the lost soldiers.
``The bottom line is that we simply don't know [if any of the POWs are alive],'' says Lt. Col. Keith Schneider, a Defense Department spokesman. ``We have no reason to believe there are Americans still alive and being held.''
The Pentagon has gathered many reports from Southeast Asian refugees that suggest that US personnel might still be held in Indochina, says the spokesman. ``But with the Korean scenario, we just don't have that.''
The Chosin Few is focusing attention on the recovery of war dead.
The group contends that it knows the location of between 5,000 to 8,000 graves - most of them clustered near former POW camps. More importantly, leaders of the group say they have the financial backing from several ``American and European foundations'' to mount an effective search and recovery operation.
Some critics have expressed concern that a group of private individuals may not adhere to the high technical standards necessary to successfully carry out such a mission. ``This is really a matter best left for experts,'' says one well-informed government source.
The North Koreans, for their part, were unwilling to even discuss the issue of missing personnel until recently.
Official intransigence began to waver during the summer of 1985. At that time, a North Korean officer spoke unofficially to a US soldier at Panmunjom (the ``truce village'' on the border between North and South Korea), suggesting that the communists might be willing to cooperate in returning the remains of US and allied soldiers missing since the war.
At about the same time, the Chosin Few was communicating with the North Korean government on the issue and got similar encouraging signals.
Frank Kerr, president of the Chosin Few says, ``Our position has always been that we shouldn't even be involved in this, because it's really a government-to-government issue.''
The US does not recognize the government of North Korea. Over the years, all US dealings have been done through the structure of the Military Armistice Commission, made up of representatives of the two sides, who oversee the ceasefire.
The UN Command has regularly asked its communist counterpart for an accounting of the missing personnel. But only in 1982 did the allies specifically begin asking the other side to search for and return the bodies of UN casualties.
The North Koreans have long sought to draw the US into direct negotiations. Such an opening would boost North Korea's prestige - by implying US recognition of the communist regime.
At the same time, it would undercut the position of South Korea, a key US ally, as well as the other nations represented by the UN Command that fought in Korea.
``We're very aware that the North Koreans may be using this to get the US to come to the table,'' says Mr. Gregory.
It is not yet clear whether the Chosin Few, Dumas's group, or both will be invited to North Korea. It is possible that neither will. The North Koreans have asked the two groups if they would combine their efforts; but neither group is interested in such an arrangement.