A key congressional critic of North Korea says he believes the regime might be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons development if the United States changes, the "tone" of its approach toward the North. The comments by Tom Lantos, top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, come amid heightened concern on Capitol Hill about North Korea's recent declaration that it has nuclear weapons:
The visited North Korea at the invitation of the government in Pyongyang, one of only two members of the House of Representatives do so over the past year.
In a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lantos said he told his North Korean hosts an opportunity for a breakthrough in relations with the United States still exists. "I told senior officials in North Korea that 2004 was the year for diplomatic breakthroughs with Libya, and it is my strong hope that 2005 could be the year for progress in our relationship with North Korea."
Mr. Lantos describes North Korean officials as being initially chilly and dogmatic, adding they renewed long-standing complaints that the United States harbors hostility toward them, and insisting only bilateral security guarantees could lead to progress.
Despite this, Mr. Lantos says he believes Pyongyang's announcement last week that it has nuclear weapons is more a reflection of a familiar negotiating strategy. "While it is always difficult to ascertain North Korean intentions, I believe that this latest announcement was simply the traditional bargaining move on their part, not an irrevocable decision."
North Korean officials were particularly critical of the North Korea Human Rights Act approved by Congress last year. Mr. Lantos told them U.S. lawmakers would respond in a positive way to a verifiable agreement emerging from multi-lateral talks also involving China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
Mr. Lantos played a role in quiet talks with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi leading to his decision last year to scrap his country's weapons of mass destruction program. He suggests the Libyan leader could play a positive role with North Korea. "It is vital that the United States [bring up] a subject central to my discussion with the North Korean leadership - that Libya should serve as a model for North Korea. While my interlocutors in Pyongyang initially rejected any comparison to Libya, by the end of my visit I believe I had opened their minds on the subject," he said.
Congressman Lantos says he told North Korean officials they must seize an important opportunity and make the brave decision of permanently renouncing nuclear weapons and missile development, and agreeing to comprehensive international inspections.
Among the benefits: possible eventual normalization of relations, lifting of sanctions, multilateral security guarantees, and regional moves to help with energy problems and other needs.
Mr. Lantos describes North Korea's statement regarding nuclear weapons as a petulant outburst, but he appeals to President Bush to keep in mind the delicate negotiations required to eliminate Libya's weapons of mass destruction program.
He says the United States should neither abandon multi-party talks, nor formally revise its position on Pyongyang's nuclear program, but asserts President Bush should send a special envoy to the talks, while changing U.S. rhetoric toward Pyongyang.
There is no sign this is likely to happen anytime soon, and no immediate reaction from the White House to Mr. Lantos' remarks.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher spoke to reporters amid a flurry of contacts between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chinese, South Korean and other officials. "We and others agree that North Korea needs to come back to the table, we and others agree that North Korea is making a mistake by staying away, we and others agree that one should not reward that mistake. We and others agree that North Korea is losing out on a variety of benefits by not pursuing a peaceful solution to this," he said.
State Department spokesman Boucher said talks in Washington between Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and South Korea's foreign minister produced agreement on the need to maintain what he called an active pace in the multi-party talks.