WASHINGTON — THE Clinton administration is walking a fine line as it presses for the return of a United States Army helicopter pilot forced down - or shot down - in North Korea on Saturday.
The White House has demanded that the North provide ``prompt access'' to the flyer, whose copilot, according to North Korea, was killed in the incident. But it is applying pressure on the Pyongyang government with extreme care to avoid jeopardizing the recent nuclear deal that has brought US-North Korean relations to their warmest level since the end of the Korean War.
``The US has so many crises on the table already that it can't handle a crisis with North Korea,'' says William Taylor, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. ``As for the North Koreans, they have too many goodies coming to them under the nuclear agreement to let this minicrisis get out of hand.''
Under the terms of the agreement, signed last October, the US is scheduled to deliver 50,000 tons of heavy oil to North Korea within the next three weeks.
``We can put significant leverage on North Korea on this issue right now,'' says Dr. Taylor. ``We should tell them that for every day they drag out returning the [two pilots] we're going to delay delivery [of oil] by one month.''
At time of writing, the US was negotiating on several fronts for the return of Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall, the surviving pilot, on what Pentagon officials describe as a routine training flight that strayed into North Korean territory - apparently by accident - before being downed.
White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told reporters on Saturday that the helicopter was heading back toward South Korea and was ``either forced down in an emergency landing or shot down. We do not know . . . what did take place.''
State Department officials have taken their case to North Korea's United Nations Mission in New York and to the ``peace village'' on the border between North and South Korea where low-ranking US and North Korean officials often meet.
The main conduit between the two governments has been Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, who arrived in Pyongyang Saturday on a previously scheduled trip. It was Congressman Richardson who conveyed official word on Sunday from the Pyongyang government that the second pilot, Warrant Officer David Hilemon, had been killed in as yet unexplained circumstances.
Pentagon sources say the helicopter passed over the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone that has separated North and South Korea since 1953, the year the Korean War ended, then crossed the heavily fortified North Korean border before coming down - or being forced down - three miles north of the border.
Although weather conditions were generally good on Saturday, a three-foot snow cover may have obscured landmarks on the ground, leading to a navigational error, Pentagon sources say.
The incident occurs at a delicate time in US-North Korean relations. Earlier this year the two countries nearly reached a crisis when North Korea refused to allow United Nations inspectors to visit two nuclear sites.
Tensions eased when an agreement was reached in October, under which the North promised to freeze its nuclear program, allow international inspections, and gradually dismantle its remaining nuclear sites.
In return, the US agreed to help mobilize up to $4 billion to help North Korea replace its existing heavy-water reactors with graphite technology that produces almost no by-product that could be used to construct nuclear bombs.
Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Sen. Pete Dominici (R) of New Mexico said the US needed to ``push [the North Koreans] very hard'' to secure the return of the surviving pilot, ``including some serious suggestions about whether we're going to put a lot ... of dollars in'' to build the new reactors.
The White House has been more reluctant to issue explicit threats. Although calling the incident ``tragic'' and ``unnecessary,'' Clinton officials were urging caution - a sentiment echoed over the weekend by incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said the US needed to ``be patient'' and ``calm.''
North Korea had made conflicting statements in the beginning, one indicating that Hilemon had been killed, another that he was being held for questioning. US officials attribute the mixed message to the confusion that still exists in the North's government five months after the death of the country's ``Great Leader,'' Kim Il Sung. They say the unsettled political situation could delay Mr. Hall's release for days or weeks.
The two pilots were part of a US contingent of 37,000 troops posted in South Korea to help keep the peace along the last hot front of the cold war. After determining in the mid-'80s that North Korean troops arrayed along the border were in an offensive posture, the US and South Korea began annual joint-military exercises - dubbed ``Team Spirit'' - which have rankled Pyongyang.
Since the end of the war there have been several border incidents. North Korean gunners shot down another US helicopter in 1977, killing all three people on board. The most notorious incident occurred in 1968 when North Korea seized an US spy ship, the Pueblo. Eighty-two crew members were held for nearly a year before being released.