A group of US lawmakers will visit North Korea this week, seeking to improve relations with Pyongyang, but is not carrying any message from the George W. Bush administration, the US Department of State said on Wednesday.
Representative Curt Weldon, the Republican who is heading the six-member team, said he hoped to convey to the North Koreans that the US Congress could do many things to help Pyongyang but only if it abandons its nuclear ambitions.
Washington has demanded Pyongyang give up its suspected nuclear weapons programs and has refused to engage in direct bilateral talks with North Korea, preferring a multilateral approach including China, South Korea, Japan and others.
While saying they will not be blackmailed by North Korea, US officials have made clear that they are willing to revive a "bold approach" of offering a range of economic assistance once it has given up its suspected nuclear arms programs.
"They are not carrying a message from the administration," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the three Republicans and three Democrats, who were expected to arrive in Pyongyang today and to stay until Monday.
While the group was briefed by US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on Tuesday, Asia analyst Joel Wit said it was unlikely the administration wanted to use them to conduct its diplomacy or to hint at any US flexibility.
"It would be totally out of character," said the Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar. "If anything, they are going to use them to send a signal of `we're hanging tough and it's you guys who have to cave in.'"
Speaking shortly before the group was to depart, Weldon said they supported US President George W. Bush's policy and were not going to negotiate with the North Koreans. The group will be hosted by North Korean President Kim Yong-nam and was told it would not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Weldon said he would float the idea of cooperation in areas like health care, housing, education and the environment if North Korea gives up its nuclear programs.
"We're going over there as ordinary Americans and saying `Hey, let's sit down and let's have a glass of rice wine and let's talk about our people and how we can improve relations,'" Weldon said. "But we can't do any of those things until you ... stop your nuclear weapons production and until you get back to abiding by the ... Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"If you do those things, we can work wonders," he added.
The others making the trip include Democrat representatives Silvestre Reyes, Solomon Ortiz and Eliot Engel as well as Republican representatives Joe Wilson and Jeff Miller.
Differing slightly with the Bush administration, Engel said he preferred bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang to none at all.
"A multilateral dialogue is preferable but I think if it's a multilateral dialogue or no dialogue I think that we have to find a way to speak with the North Koreans," Engel said. "We don't want to be in a position of being blackmailed, but on the other hand ... you don't want cut off your nose to spite your face and I think we need to speak with the North Koreans."