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Door Ajar for N. Korea Talks?

Times Staff Writer

A California Democrat in the first U.S. congressional delegation to visit North Korea since 2003 expressed hopes Tuesday of restarting stalled talks aimed at ending the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

“I think this is a potential turning point in North Korean history,” Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo said during a stopover in Beijing after three days of meetings with North Korean officials.

“My message to the North Koreans was that it’s in the interest of North Korea to return to the six-party talks without any delay,” Lantos said. “I had the very strong impression they are ready to discuss the matter because they understand we are determined to do so.”

The North has refused to rejoin the talks, which involved the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China. The meetings in the Chinese capital began in 2003 after the North agreed to discuss ending its weapons program in return for economic help and security assurances.

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North Korea boycotted talks planned for last September, saying it faced continued hostility from the U.S. government. Three years ago, President Bush declared the regime part of an “axis of evil” that included Iran and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. In recent months, North Korea has been waiting for signs of how U.S. policy might change in Bush’s second term.

“I told them the shape of the Bush administration is crystal-clear,” said Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. “There is no conceivable reason for anyone to expect a significant change of U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula.”

Lantos said that during his visit, which included meetings with Vice President Yang Hyong Sop and Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, he cited Libya as an example of how the North might end its international isolation. Last January, Lantos became the first member of Congress to visit Libya since the 1960s, after the North African nation volunteered to give up its weapons of mass destruction and normalize relations with the United States.

“I spent a lot of time with them on the example of Libya,” Lantos said. “I have no illusions we’ve solved the problem. But I am convinced we’ve taken a small step forward.”

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Li Dunqiu, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said Washington had been preoccupied with the U.S. presidential election and the war in Iraq but now appeared ready to shift its attention to North Korea. But Pyongyang is not Tripoli, Li said, and a quick resolution is unlikely.

“The Libya model doesn’t really work for North Korea,” Li said. “It’s impossible to think Pyongyang would volunteer to give up their nuclear program without receiving significant economic aid and security guarantees.

“At the same time,” Li added, “the North has no choice but to return to the negotiating table. That’s the only way they could bargain for what they want.”


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