North Korea agreed Wednesday to release the remains of a pilot who died when his helicopter went down in the communist country four days ago. A second pilot who survived will be held while the government finishes investigating the incident, the North said.

The White House welcomed the agreement to repatriate the remains but said it had no concrete assurances the second pilot would be released.North Korea agreed to return the remains during a long meeting with U.S. officials at the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom, where the repatriation is to take place at 10 a.m. Thursday (6 p.m. MST Wednesday), U.S. military spokesman Jim Coles said. Army generals led each delegation.

Chief Warrant Officers Bobby Hall of Brooksville, Fla., and David Hilemon of Clarksville, Tenn., were flying along the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas Saturday when their U.S. Army OH-58C helicopter strayed into North Korean territory.

The helicopter made an emergency landing or was shot down. Hilemon died and Hall was taken captive.

Citing humanitarian principles, North Korea said through its official Korean Central News Agency Wednesday that it has "decided to transfer the body of David Hilemon soon to the U.S. Army."

It said Hall was "now in good health" and that when the government's investigation is completed, "a step will be taken according to the relevant legal procedures of our army."

U.S. officials said they were hopeful Hall would be released soon.

"What I've been told is that the Korean People's Army is going to keep him until their investigation is complete, and we're hoping that won't be long," Coles said. "They said they're not going to give us any information on him or allow any contact in the meantime."

Coles said he had no details on whether North Korea made any demands in exchange for repatriation.

"We certainly welcome this humanitarian move," White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said of North Korea's agreement to repatriate Hilemon's remains.

The United States will continue to demand Hall's release "in time for the Christmas holiday," she told reporters in Washington Wednesday morning. But she said Washington didn't "have anything concrete" when asked about reports that the United States had been assured he would be freed.

Hilemon's remains will be accompanied to Seoul by U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., sources in Washington said.

Coincidence thrust the congressman into the role of Washington's point man on the repatriation negotiations. He had traveled to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Saturday to discuss the Oct. 21 pact between North Korea and the United States to open the North's secretive nuclear program.

Richardson's wife called Hall's mother, Diane, Wednesday to say the congressman hopes her son will be released before Christmas.

"I was hoping for a little bit more, but we'll take it and hope that it just keeps progressing as quickly from there," Diane Hall told Cable News Network. "We still don't have any real word on his condition. I'll believe he's OK when I see him."

The helicopter incident is complicating efforts by both countries to improve relations that had been extremely tense until the accord was signed.

The Clinton administration has showed increasing impatience with North Korea, warning that relations could be set back unless it quickly released the two pilots.

Several countries, including China, were asked to intervene with North Korea on behalf of the United States, U.S. officials said.

The last U.S. radio contact with the helicopter indicated the pilot believed he was still in South Korea when he was about 31/2 miles into North Korean territory, a senior Pentagon official has said.

U.S. officials have speculated the pilots became disoriented because a heavy snow may have covered navigational placards on the ground and made landmarks difficult to identify. They have insisted the helicopter was on an unarmed training mission.

But the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported that officials of North Korea's U.N. delegation called the intrusion "a surprise attack."

"A U.S. helicopter intruded . . . on a surprise attack, crossing the military demarcation line," the officials were quoted as saying.

"It was not a matter of losing their way nor a technical accident," they said. "It is nonsense that they don't know the Korean geographical features."

The helicopter ignored a warning signal, and North Korea fired anti-aircraft guns and ground-to-air missiles, the officials were quoted as saying.


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Additional Information

Invasion ambitions?

North Korea accused Japan Wednesday of harboring ambitions to invade Korea after South Korea's navy made its first port call ever in Tokyo on Tuesday. Japan's navy is to return the visit in 1996.

"The Japanese reactionaries are trying to realize their wild ambition for reinvasion" by using South Korea as a stepping stone, the official Korean Central News Agency said. Japan ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 until the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945.

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