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NK hits back over troop remains

North Korea
Donald H. Rumsfeld

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- North Korea has said it will "totally dismantle" efforts to recover the remains of U.S. troops missing since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The decision comes one week after Washington said it would temporarily halt the missions.

"The rude action taken by the present U.S. administration has totally blocked the way of confirming the identification of more than 8,000 U.S. soldiers reported missing in action during the Korean war," a statement from a spokesman of the Korean People's Army in the border city of Panmunjom said.

The statement accused Washington of unilaterally reneging on the bilateral arrangement, and added "the U.S. remains buried in Korea can never be recovered but are bound to be reduced to earth with the flow of time."

The Pentagon cited tensions between the two countries as a reason for temporarily ending the search missions that began in 1996, saying North Korea had created "unsafe conditions" for U.S. teams operating inside the country.

The U.S. decision to suspend the operations was made by top-level government officials and recommended by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a senior Pentagon official said.

Recovery teams of more than 20 people rely on a liaison officer in the capital of Pyongyang to relay information outside the country, according to Pentagon officials.

However, the political conditions in North Korea have left teams vulnerable, Pentagon officials have said. Of particular concern is the possibility that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test.

Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs -- involving China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States -- have been stalled for nearly a year.

North Korea disputed the notion of U.S. recovery teams being in peril, despite the acknowledgment of tense relations.

"Our side permitted more than 30 recovery operations and enabled members of the U.S. side to safely go back, taking recovered remains with them, without having even a single fingernail hurt," the statement said.

During 33 missions since 1996, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command recovered from North Korea more than 200 sets of remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War.

Additional remains were recovered during May, but the Pentagon was uncertain of the number.

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