Some of the details are still lacking, but the downing of an American helicopter just inside North Korea this past weekend has strained U.S.-North Korea relations that had slowly begun to thaw in recent months.

The downed helicopter and the death of one pilot and the seizure of a second pilot can either be limited to an unhappy incident or escalate into a confrontation and crisis.Both nations should strive to keep the situation under control and not let emotions and anger take charge. Under normal conditions, a small helicopter straying over a twisting, hard-to-define, 155-mile border would not touch off an armed response and a possible rupture in relations. But in dealing with xenophobic North Korea, anything is possible.

Americans have a right to be angered at the unnecessary death of a pilot who clearly had lost his way and inadvertently crossed the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea at a time when heavy snow had buried some of the usual orange navigation markers on the ground.

Yet the facts indicate that such anger must be restrained. The helicopter was on the wrong side of the border, and North Koreans are trigger-happy. The last time a U.S. helicopter strayed over the line was 17 years ago. It also was shot down. It is a telling comment about the rigid Communist regime in North Korea that nothing has changed in 17 years.

The first U.S. priority is to obtain the quick release of Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall and the return of the remains of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon. That is not negotiable. The two men had only been in Korea for 43 days as part of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

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A U.S. congressman, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., happened to be in North Korea on a visit connected with the recent agreement on opening North Korea's nuclear facilities to international inspection. Richardson may be able to bring some immediate political pressure to bear.

However, dealing with North Korea is never easy. Americans already have criticized the Korean slowness to respond. Unfortunately, the signals from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, have been mixed.

One concern is that the country's new leader, Kim Jong II, may not be firmly in control. The helicopter incident and the holding of the surviving pilot could become part of an unrelated power struggle between the military and Kim, the son of North Korea's late iron-fisted dictator.

North Korea has cautiously inched open some doors to the outside world. It would be a shame to see them slammed shut again by suspicious behavior in Pyongyang. It is in the interests of both countries to put this incident to rest as quickly as possible.

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