Members of an unofficial U.S. delegation returning from North Korea said Saturday that they were granted access to the Yongbyon nuclear facility during a five-day trip to the isolated communist nation. They were the first outsiders to visit the site since U.N. inspectors were asked to leave the country a year ago.
Earlier this week, North Korea repeated an offer to freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for assurance from Washington that it would provide aid and remove North Korea from its list of nations it says sponsor terrorism. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called the offer “a positive step” amid U.S. suspicion that Pyongyang is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to create weapons.
Delegation leader John W. Lewis of Stanford University, who first visited North Korea in 1987, said he remained optimistic that some resolution to the nuclear standoff could be negotiated. “If you spend 17 years on this, you have to be an optimist,” he said.
The five members of the delegation declined to provide details on what they saw at Yongbyon until they could brief the administration and Congress.
Asked why, in his opinion, North Korea had invited the delegation, Lewis said Pyongyang’s motives matched their own. “It’s the same as ours -- they want to clarify the issues,” he said.
A planned round of six-party talks in December involving the U.S., China, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia fell through over the level of guarantees Washington and Pyongyang were willing to make. Negotiators hope to reschedule the talks before the Jan. 22 start of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
The first round of talks, in August, ended with little progress.
Lewis told several dozen reporters at the airport in Beijing that North Korean officials were courteous to the delegation, which included a nuclear specialist, two U.S. Senate aides and a former State Department envoy to North Korea, granting them access to the places and people they sought. Their visit included meetings with economic, scientific and military officials, he said.
North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, which the group visited Friday, is about 60 miles north of Pyongyang.
In a statement Friday, North Korea said Washington was foolish if it thought Pyongyang would follow the lead of “some Middle Eastern countries.” That was an apparent reference to Libya’s recent decision to renounce weapons of mass destruction and Libya and Iran’s moves to grant access to outside weapons inspectors.
“The United States is hyping recent developments in some Middle East countries,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said, in a statement attributed to a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It is seized with hallucination that the same would happen on the Korean peninsula and some countries echo this ‘hope’ and ‘expect’ some change.”
North Korea has a long history of fiery rhetoric and unreasonable demands before international negotiations.
The statement went on to say that anyone who expected such a change in North Korea was as foolish as someone expecting “a shower from clear sky.”
“It is the historical truth that peace is won and defended only with strength,” it said.
China on Friday said it planned to send a delegation of North Korea experts to Washington next week to discuss conditions for a new round of talks. They include Fu Ying, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian affairs department, and Ning Fukui, special ambassador on Korean nuclear issues.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.