- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

SEOUL — North Korea told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation yesterday that it would return to six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons program and become a “friend” of the United States, hinting at a possible reversal of a decades-old policy of calling America its “sworn enemy.”

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon said North Korea appeared ready to negotiate “in a matter of weeks.” He spoke at a press conference in South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

Yesterday’s overture — while requiring that Washington not vilify North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — was highly unusual. Pyongyang’s anti-American propaganda has been whipped into a near-religious fervor, with banners in villages everywhere exhorting North Koreans to prepare for an inevitable war with the “U.S. imperialists.”

“The DPRK side expressed its stand that the DPRK would not stand against the U.S. but respect and treat it as a friend unless the latter slanders the former’s system and interferes in its internal affairs,” said the North’s official news agency, KCNA, using the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korean officials stressed the “need to take a future-oriented approach toward improving the bilateral relations,” the news agency said.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan took a wait-and-see approach to the statement out of Pyongyang.

“We will see by their actions how serious they are. … We look forward to the next round of talks; we hope they will occur soon,” Mr. McClellan told reporters yesterday aboard Air Force One for President Bush’s trip to Florida.

Pyongyang’s unexpected gesture came shortly after a bipartisan delegation of six American lawmakers concluded talks with senior communist officials in Pyongyang, the capital. Mr. Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the trip an “overwhelming success.”

During their four-day trip, the six congressmen met with North Korea’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, who is also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Mr. Weldon, who led the delegation, dismissed recent news reports that North Korea began removing leader Kim Jong-il’s portraits in Pyongyang. But he said a large billboard he saw during his first trip there in May 2003 was no longer there — a mural showing a North Korean driving a bayonet into an American soldier.”

The North Korean leadership told the Americans that the North “would opt for finding a final solution to all the outstanding issues between the two countries, to say nothing of the resumption of the six-party talks and the nuclear issue, if what U.S. congressmen said would be formulated as a policy of the second Bush administration,” KCNA said.

The United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have struggled to arrange a new round of talks aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. The three prior rounds since 2003 made no breakthroughs. The last round was held last June.

“Our unanimous impression is that the DPRK is ready to rejoin the six-party process,” Mr. Weldon said.

“I am convinced, as are all my colleagues, that if in fact we move along the process … the six-party talks can and will resume in a matter of weeks,” he added.

In Pyongyang, Mr. Weldon said his group tried “to reinforce the fact of what our president has said, that we do not wish to have a regime change, that we will not pre-emptively attack the North, but we do need to resolve the nuclear issue.”

Experts say the isolated North may already possess two or three nuclear bombs, in addition to fuel that could produce several more. North Korea has said it needs a nuclear deterrent against U.S. invasion after the Iraq war.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has said he expects North Korea to return to six-way talks after President Bush is inaugurated for his second term Thursday. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush lumped North Korea into an “axis of evil” together with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The president later said he “loathes” Kim Jong-il.

“They are looking to see if any other comments would come out of Washington that would be negative or that would cast a negative aspect or negative feeling about the DPRK and its leaders,” Mr. Weldon said.

North Korea has cited a “hostile” U.S. policy as the key stumbling block to ending the two-year nuclear standoff and has demanded that Washington provide a guarantee of nonaggression and compensation in return for dismantling its nuclear facilities. The congressional delegation urged North Korea to meet the U.S. demand for a “total and complete” removal of its nuclear programs.

North Korea’s friendly reception of the American lawmakers was a familiar tactic of using visiting officials to increase understanding and support within the visitors’ country.

But it also reflects the regime’s growing troubles over prolonged economic hardship and an increasing number of people fleeing the country to avoid starvation.

The Weldon-led delegation urged Washington to adopt a conciliatory approach.

“It’s time for us to treat the DPRK with respect, to understand that they do want to resolve this,” Mr. Weldon said.

The White House scuttled Mr. Weldon’s plan to visit Pyongyang in October 2003. Its approval of this trip came amid signs of a change in Washington’s approach to the North. Washington has reportedly decided to remove one of its harshest critics of Kim, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, from Bush’s next administration.

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