DOD uses low tech to find MIAs

The Pentagon owns and operates the most advanced computer and communications equipment available but during this month's mission to recover remains of American soldiers missing in action in the Korean War the Defense Department had to opt for decidedly low-technology tools. Typically when the DOD Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) dispatches a field team to recover soldiers' remains signed agreements allow them to bring in advanced satellite telecommunications gear and advanced computers even into not-so-friendly Communist countries such as Vietnam and Laos. But in the closed society of North Korea - still officially in a state of war with the United States - the high-tech equipment caused such suspicion that when the first Pentagon recovery team went to Korea in 1996 it had to rely on the outmoded North Korean phone system for communications. That made it difficult for the Pentagon and an administrative team working out of a hotel in Pyongyang to communicate with the field recovery team which searched for remains just south of the Yalu River the border between North Korea and China near the furthest line of advance that U.S. forces achieved during the Korean War. "The field team [in 1996] had to drive a couple of hours to find a telephone in a village " said Alan Liotta deputy director of the DPMO. "So we told the North Koreans we needed to improve our communications so those guys would be able to file a situation report." The North Koreans did not allow satellite communications because of security reasons "so we negotiated an agreement to use a high-frequency [HF] radio between the field and Pyongyang " Liotta said. The North Koreans also specified what frequencies DOD could use so they could monitor conversations said Maj. Mark Reeder operations officer for the Army Central Identifications Laboratory-Hawaii (CILHI) which provided the recovery teams and will also attempt to match the remains recovered and returned last week with a list of Korean War MIAs. Although low tech the HF radio and the access North Koreans have given Americans surprises many Korean War experts. Leon Daniel a Marine Corps Korean War veteran who covered Asia for 15 years as a reporter for United Press International said using old technology is "just incredible. I've been to Panmunjom - [the area on the demilitarized zone where North Korean and United Nations representatives conduct intermittent talks] - a half a dozen times and it was intense. The idea that Americans are working just south of the Yalu River is almost too much to believe." Still communications proved difficult because of monsoons which can disrupt HF radio transmissions. For almost a week the recovery team could not establish a communications link with the base teams. DPMO received permission from the North Koreans to move the base station antenna from the hotel to a nearby ridge line. This permitted the field team searching for remains in an area where hundreds of 8th Cavalry soldiers are presumed to be buried to send in a situation report to the base station. Reeder said he hopes to achieve better communications with the next recovery effort which starts Aug. 11 with the better antenna location and the addition of an Army HF radio technician to the Pyongyang team. In addition Reeder said he plans to work "with the Joint Frequency Management Office to see if we can get better frequencies for inclement weather." Other gear CILHI used in North Korea also has a deliberately low-tech bent. "We sent an old beat-up 486 laptop with just basic word processing software on it to do our [situation reports] " Reeder said. CILHI considers Global Positioning System receivers essential to its mission to record precise locations of excavations and remains. "We have to be able to scientifically prove where we recovered the remains " Reeder said. North Korean concerns about technology drove selection of the GPS "Trimpak" receivers that offer data logging into the receiver itself but not output of the data to a computer equipped with a geographic information system. CILHI relies on paper Operational Navigational Charts rather than National Imagery and Mapping Agency products. Other low technology includes fax machines that the DPMO base team in Pyongyang uses to relay field reports back to Washington D.C. A team put together to scour North Korean archives on MIAs uses a copying machine and a digital camera. "This is the best we can do in this environment " Reeder said and added that the small technology gains represent a breakthrough from the 1996 recovery missions when "the security police were dead set against us."


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