The United States and China have signed an agreement for Chinese researchers to provide the U.S. military with information from Chinese archives. The information may help shed light on the fate of some of the 8,100 Americans still missing or unaccounted for from the Korean War. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.
The deal was signed in Shanghai Friday by the China's Ministry of National Defense and a U.S. Defense Department official. Under the new "arrangement," Chinese archivists will provide information about American servicemen held in Chinese Prison of War camps during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Ray represented the American side.
"Any time we get access to new information that might open up leads to cases of people we haven't accounted for, it's a big deal," he said.
Ray says the U.S. has received information from Chinese archives in the past, but these have been episodic. He says the new pact marks the first time the U.S. side will have sustained access to Chinese archival information.
Friday's deal also marks a modest step forward in U.S.-China military relations, which have been strained in recent years for several reasons. These include the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a collision in 2001 between an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, and recent U.S. criticism of China's military build-up.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao says the foundations of this latest agreement were set during exchanges of high-level military visits last year. He says the details are still being worked out, but that China will continue to follow what he calls a "humanitarian spirit" and provide assistance to the United States.
Declassified U.S. Army records from the 1950's make clear that the United States knew of hundreds of American prisoners in China during the Korean War.
The Pentagon's Ray says U.S. researchers hope to glean useful information from the records left behind.
"It could be anything from burial reports, to rosters of people who were in the camps, to hospital records," he said. "What it amounts to is whatever records a military unit has kept, that has been put in the archive, that might have information on it about an American serviceman - we would at least like that part of the record, or the information pertaining to the American."
Ray says one of the details involves what form the information will take - extracts or full copies.
"If someone wanted records from our archives, it would depend. If it were a sensitive document, we might extract the information and give someone a summary," he said. "Or we might redact or black out the sensitive parts, and give a photo copy."
Ray says there is an urgency to resolve as many cases as possible from a war that was fought more than 50 years ago. Witnesses are disappearing, and relatives are dying without knowing what happened to their loved ones.