Two US lawmakers returned from a visit to North Korea yesterday, saying they were "cautiously optimistic" ahead of six-nation talks on the isolated country's nuclear program scheduled for later this month.
"We are optimistic, but we are optimistic in a cautious fashion," Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, told a briefing upon arrival in Beijing from a four-day visit to North Korea with Iowa Republican Jim Leach.
A fourth round of six-party talks between the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China is expected in the week beginning September 12, following a delay demanded by North Korea.
After two weeks of unsuccessful negotiations among the six ended in early August, Lantos said the time had now come to quickly deal with matters of principle, or risk seeing the American public lose its patience.
"We asked them to understand that in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina, the focus of the American people will turn inward," Lantos said at the briefing.
"The patience of the American public with dilatory diplomatic delays will be very limited."
The two congressmen met in North Korea with several key leaders, including Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun and ranking members of the armed forces.
Lantos said the North Korean hosts appeared to have "taken on board" the idea of quickly moving to more substantive discussions, seeing the six-party talks as offering a "win-win" situation rather than a "zero-sum game."
"But the fact remains that unless a set of principles can be agreed upon as a framework for continuing the dialogue, there is nothing else to talk about," he added.
Leach said this was not a time for either the United States or North Korea to delay the negotiating process.
"The United States, of course, is concerned about the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. North Korea has to be concerned about being left behind in the great economic advances that are being made throughout Asia," he said.
The talks aim to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits and security guarantees.
One sticking point is whether North Korea should be allowed to run nuclear power plants for civilian use.
According to Leach, the North Korean hosts had seemed professional and willing to seek understanding.
"At all points, our discussions were extraordinarily respectful," he said.
"I left with the feeling that the North Koreans were professional individuals that were intent upon seeking understanding and also wanted to express their differences of opinion," he said.
Lantos said he had noticed big differences in the atmosphere in North Korea since a first visit to the country early this year.
"The contrast in the two visits could not be greater. There was a dramatic degree of improvement in the climate, in the graciousness of the hospitality, in the amount of time we spent with key leaders," he said. "I attribute this to what I believe their view is on the six-party talks."
The Congressmen and their hosts also discussed the possibility of cultural exchanges, including a visit by the Pyongyang Circus to the United States.