19 January 2005 -- A senior member of the U.S. Congress has returned from a visit to communist North Korea with a relatively optimistic assessment of prospects for ending the international dispute over its nuclear capability.
Curt Weldon (Republican, Pennsylvania), vice chairman of the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee, told journalists in Tokyo that he believes Pyongyang is serious about abandoning its nuclear program.
But he said North Korea wants certain assurances from the United States -- the main one being what he called "inflammatory rhetoric" from Washington.
The United States has taken a stern line against Pyongyang's efforts to develop nuclear bombs and rocket-delivery systems, with President George W. Bush calling it a member of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
But criticism of North Korea is not limited to the United States.
The head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Muhammad el-Baradei, has called North Korea "the No. 1 proliferation threat."
Congressman Weldon said, however, that North Korea realized the U.S. bipartisan delegation that last week visited Pyongyang had a different -- and possibly more positive -- approach to the problem.
"Right from the beginning of our trip they understood that this was a different approach, a different delegation, so that they were prepared to give unprecedented access [to us], and so the discussions which took place were not the typical arguing back and forth making accusations at one another," Weldon said.
Weldon said the talks had got beyond such ritual exchanges and gone to the heart of the matter.
"They were very frank and candid discussions about how we get back on track, what will that take, and will you, North Korea, in fact agree to an end result which is the complete de-nuclearization of your state?" Weldon said.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has called North Korea "the No. 1 proliferation threat."
The congressman said rather than use his own words to describe what had happened, he would use direct quotes from North Korea's top negotiator at stalled six-nation talks on the nuclear problem, Kim Kye Gwan.
He quoted Kim as confirming that North Korea is already "a nuclear state," but that this capability is "only for defensive purposes."
He quoted Kim as suggesting there is room for negotiations on shedding this capability. "Kim Kye Gwan, and this is perhaps the most important [statement from] Kim Kye Gwan -- quote, 'We do not mean to preserve it for good', meaning the nuclear capability, 'we do not mean to preserve it for good'."
North Korea's official KCNA news agency on 14 January issued what Weldon described as the most positive document toward the United States ever seen from KCNA. The news agency said that if Weldon's approach is reflected in the policy of President Bush's new administration, then Pyongyang would be ready to go back to the six-nation talks.
Weldon said the opportunity for progress is at hand, but he is worried the chance will be lost.
In Washington yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice said if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear program, Washington will respond.
"We have made clear to the North Korean regime that the president of the United States has said...that the United States has no intention to attack North Korea, to invade North Korea, that multilateral security assurances would be available to North Korea to which the United States would be party, if North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons programs verifiably and irreversibly," Rice said.
Rice was speaking at the first day of her confirmation hearing to succeed Colin Powell as America's top diplomat.
(compiled from wire reports)