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North Korea willing to resume U.S. missions to recover remains of MIAs

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
Air Force Lt. Harold Downes was a navigator on a B-26 bomber that went down over North Korea on January 13, 1952.
Air Force Lt. Harold Downes was a navigator on a B-26 bomber that went down over North Korea on January 13, 1952.
  • More than 8,000 U.S. personnel are "unaccounted for" from the Korean War
  • Efforts by the United States and North Korea located 229 sets of remains in years past
  • Those efforts were suspended in 2005 by then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
  • Now, the North Koreans say "we're ready to resume" searching

Washington (CNN) -- Rick Downes' mission has brought him here, to the National Archives in suburban Washington, D.C. His goal: to find any records, information -- anything at all -- that would tell him what happened to his father.

"My father is missing in action 59 years ago yesterday. He was Air Force and his plane went down and we don't know what happened to him," Downes said last Friday before he headed into the Archives.

Lt. Harold Downes was a navigator on a B-26 bomber when his plane went down over North Korea on January 13, 1952. Some of the crew ejected and were captured by the North Koreans. Downes was never seen again. He remains to this day one of the more than 8,000 U.S. servicemembers listed as "unaccounted for" from the Korean War, a conflict often referred to as the "forgotten war."

For the families of those unaccounted for, there used to be hope. Over the years, the United States and North Korea -- long-time adversaries -- had cooperated in efforts to look for remains of those missing in action. Beginning in 1996, North Korean and U.S. military teams conducted 33 joint recovery missions looking for remains inside North Korea. There was success, too -- 229 sets of remains were located, and brought out of the very reclusive country.

But all that changed in 2005 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suspended the work, saying that due to rising nuclear tensions at the time, he felt the safety of the U.S. teams could not be guaranteed. At the time it seemed fairly routine.

"It's a question of an uncertain environment in which everybody thought it was prudent that they not be in the country at the moment," said Lawrence DiRita, Pentagon spokesman at the time.

But neither the Bush nor Obama administrations reinstated the effort, and now it's the North Koreans who are trying to get the program restarted.

Korean War MIA

When Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico, went to Pyongyang in December, he suddenly found himself in a meeting where the whole issue came up.

"The North Koreans started out by saying, 'You know, if we can better our relationship, we can give you more remains of your soldiers,'" Richardson told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, one of only two journalists to accompany Richardson on his trip to North Korea.

A North Korean general "handed me pictures of American remains and he said, 'We found close to 100 in the southern part of the country and we want normal relations to resume and the joint recovery efforts between our militaries, I believe, are a way to enhance the relationship,'" Richardson said.

He added that the general told him, "Will you please pass on the message that we're ready to resume that."

The North Koreans may have good reason to want the United States teams back. The United States pays for the costs incurred during the recovery missions, with cash Pyongyang desperately needs. The United States has long insisted its does not pay for information about where remains are located.

The Pentagon declined to comment on questions about the policy. In its last annual report in 2009, Pacific Command's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command said it is ready to resume the search.

"When directed by higher headquarters, we are prepared to resume operations (in North Korea) and will request access to the Unsan area where we were conducting operations before asked to halt field activities in that country," the report said.

For Downes and other relatives of those unaccounted for, there is a feeling time is running out for what they see as a humanitarian mission that should be free of politics.

"There's no indication when this might be resolved. We could go another five years or more. and meanwhile the villagers, these North Korean villagers, and fishermen who hold so much vital information, they're aging, too," said Downes.

He said he feels an obligation to his father. "Of course, I owe it, to go get him," Downes said outside the National Archives building in suburban Washington. "We certainly preach it, when we send these guys off to war. We send them off with a promise that we will bring them home no matter what."

Downes has a picture of himself and his father on his cell phone, his father in skates and hockey gear, towering over a then-3-year-old boy.

"When does our commitment end? These guys are still serving," Downes said. "They're still serving, whether they are in the ground or some work camp, they are still serving until we find out what's happened to them."

Meantime, Rick Downes and his family, including his 84-year old mother, continue the vigil.

What can he tell his mother?

"I'll tell her she has to wait," Downes said.

CNN's Charley Keyes contributed to this report