Archive for Thursday, May 29, 2003

U.S. lawmakers on independent visit to N. Korea

May 29, 2003

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— 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 delegation leader Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa.

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," 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 departing Wednesday 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 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 U.N. 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.

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

Other members of the delegation are Reps. Silvestre Reyes and and Solomon Ortiz, both D-Texas, Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

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