- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003


Six U.S. lawmakers hope to ease tensions with North Korea in the first visit by American officials since a crisis began last fall over the country’s secret nuclear program.

They will tell North Korean officials that economic aid and trade lie ahead if Pyongyang abandons its nuclear program and improves relations with the United States, said the delegation leader, Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican.

Mr. Weldon stressed that the lawmakers weren’t traveling as Bush administration envoys and wouldn’t negotiate. He said the administration did not encourage the trip, but didn’t try to prevent it. On Tuesday, the lawmakers discussed North Korea with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.

“This is not an attempt to undermine or circumvent the president’s message that the nuclear crisis can be resolved only through a multilateral effort,” Mr. Weldon said. North Korea wants one-on-one talks with the United States.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the lawmakers were not carrying a message from the administration. “We, of course, look forward to hearing from them on their return,” he said.

The lawmakers were to depart yesterday and expected to arrive in Pyongyang on Friday. They leave Sunday for South Korea. They expect to meet with North Korea’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, but were told they would not meet with top leader Kim Jong-il.

The talks represent a rare contact between the United States and isolated, impoverished North Korea. President Bush last year included North Korea in his “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran.

Poor relations further deteriorated in October when North Korea, after being confronted by Mr. Kelly, admitted it had a clandestine, uranium-based nuclear program. U.S. officials believe North Korea already has one or two nuclear weapons and could develop more.

Washington said the program violated a 1994 agreement and cut off oil supplies promised under the accord. North Korea then announced it was reactivating an older plutonium program and expelled United Nations inspectors.

There has been little diplomatic contact. In January, North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Han Song-ryol, met with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. North Korean diplomats met with U.S. officials in Beijing in April and demanded a long list of concessions in exchange for disarmament.

Mr. Weldon said he had planned the trip for more than a year, before the crisis developed. He has been in contact with Mr. Han, and “the trip has been on and off 20 times,” he said.

The No. 2 member of the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Weldon is a maverick who has often stepped into tense diplomatic situations. He has been a frequent visitor to Russia, dating back to the Cold War, and wrote an influential plan to foster U.S.-Russian partnerships.

Mr. Weldon said he would tell North Korean officials about opportunities for energy projects and humanitarian assistance. But Mr. Weldon also said “there is a line drawn in the sand: Your nuclear program must end unequivocally.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said the visit could help break the impasse over whether negotiations should be bilateral or involve other nations.

He said if the congressional meeting is seen as bilateral, “perhaps that gives the North Koreans the hook to say that they have met with a U.S. delegation face-to-face with no other countries there, and then proceed to [multilateral talks].”

North Korea says the dispute is with the United States and talks should not involve other nations. The United States says North Korea is a regional problem and talks should involve countries that could be threatened by its nuclear program, such as South Korea.

Other members of the delegation are Reps. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, Solomon P. Ortiz and Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrats.

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