Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Six U.S. lawmakers headed for North Korea on Friday for a three-day fact-finding mission to the reclusive communist nation whose pursuit of nuclear weapons has placed it on a collision course with Washington.
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon is leading the bipartisan delegation that was due to arrive in Pyongyang Friday, flying by military aircraft via Japan.
Before leaving, he said the U.S. lawmakers would tell their hosts the impoverished country could expect trade and aid if it abandons its nuclear ambitions and improves ties with the U.S.
The group hoped to meet with the second most senior North Korean leader, Supreme People's Assembly president Kim Yong-nam, and had requested a visit to the country's nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
Yongbyon, about 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, is the location of a nuclear reactor that was mothballed under a 1994 agreement with the U.S., but restarted again early this year.
It is also home to a nuclear fuel processing facility where 8,000 spent fuel rods are stored. Experts have warned that sufficient plutonium could be extracted from the rods to build up to five atomic bombs within several months.
Whether the Americans will be allowed a visit to the site remains to be seen.
Weldon spokesman Bud DeFlaviis said from Washington that the North Koreans were keeping "a tight lid" on the agenda.
He described the visit as an "effort from Congress to show that once the relationship is normalized, Congress is willing to work with the North Koreans to improve their situation."
DeFlaviis said the delegation was not taking a message to Pyongyang from the Bush Administration.
"There's no communication the delegation is delivering other than a willingness to work together once relations are normalized - and they're going to stress the importance of that."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing earlier that the congressmen were not carrying a message from the government, but that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly had briefed them before their departure.
Kelly is the official who last October confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they had embarked on a covert uranium-enrichment program in contravention of the 1994 deal, called the Agreed Framework.
The department said at the time the North Koreans had admitted this was true, although Pyongyang continues publicly to deny this.
Because of the violation, which the State Department said had begun years earlier, the U.S. and its allies decided to suspend the shipment of heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang, which was another element of the agreement.
North Korea then said it had no choice but to restart its frozen program to generate power, having kicked out U.N. inspectors and removed U.N. surveillance cameras and seals.
Pyongyang subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Kelly headed a U.S. team in talks last month with the North Koreans and Chinese in Beijing, where Pyongyang was reported to have admitted for the first time that is has nuclear weapons. No further talks were scheduled.
In a statement issued before he left, Weldon said the trip had come about at the invitation of the North Koreans.
He was hopeful that once bilateral dialogue is established, "We can eventually address issues like nuclear weapons production and drug trafficking that have prevented us from working together."
Western intelligence agencies say the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang uses the narcotics trade to finance its military and its non-conventional weapons programs. In April, Australian armed forces and police seized a North Korean-owned after its crew allegedly offloaded a large quantity of heroin by dinghy off the coast.
Weldon also commended the Bush administration for its efforts on North Korea.
Joining him on the visit are Republicans Joe Wilson (S.C.) and Jeff Miller (Fla.), and Democrats Sylvester Ryes (Tex.), Solomon Ortiz (Tex), and Eliot Engle (N.Y.).
The delegation will stop briefly in South Korea on the way home.
DeFlaviis said this was Weldon's first visit to North Korea, but he had made similar trips in the past to other sensitive parts of the world, including 32 visits to Russia and two to China, where he has twice addressed the National Defense University.
"He has tried to engage countries that have an iffy relationship with the United States," he said.
Senior officials from the U.S., South Korea and Japan are due to meet next month to discuss ways of jointly tackling the nuclear issue, Seoul's presidency said Thursday.
Washington has been pushing for any future talks with Pyongyang to also involve its two East Asian allies, as well as China and Russia.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.