updated 5/25/2005 6:20:57 PM ET 2005-05-25T22:20:57

The Pentagon on Wednesday abruptly suspended U.S. efforts to recover the remains of American soldiers from North Korea, accusing the Koreans of creating an environment that could jeopardize the safety of U.S. workers.

No specifics were provided, but the move came amid rising tensions with the North Korean government over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The work had been proceeding since 1996, resulting in the recovery of more than 220 soldiers’ remains and the payment of millions of dollars to the North Korean government for logistical support. Thousands more soldiers are still missing, and a large number of remains are believed recoverable.

The suspension came just one day after the Pentagon announced that a number of remains of U.S. soldiers had been recovered during the first of what had been scheduled to be a series of missions this year at two former battlefields in North Korea. That announcement gave no indication there was a problem with safety.

“The United States is prepared to continue Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command humanitarian missions to locate, recover and repatriate the remains of Americans still missing in North Korea after they have created an appropriate environment,” said a statement issued by U.S. Pacific Command, which overseas the missions.

A spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jason Salata, said the decision to suspend operations was made Tuesday by the Defense Department. He said he could not say exactly what prompted the decision.

Safety concerns an issue
“The overall environment that the North Koreans have created is not conducive to the effective operation of the missions, so there’s a risk there and it’s a force protection risk that we view as not ensuring the safest conditions for our recovery teams,” Salata said.

The spokesman noted that the North Koreans do not permit U.S. personnel at the recovery sites to communicate with anyone outside of North Korea. This is a restriction that was agreed upon by both sides when they negotiated the terms of the current series of recovery missions. Salata could not say why the restriction is now deemed unacceptable.

“This presents a force protection issue for us, and we want to ensure the safest conditions for our recovery teams,” he said. “North Korea has, over the last several weeks, created an atmosphere and an environment unconducive to the continued presence of American personnel in North Korea.” He said he could not elaborate.

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