Tom Lantos: A 'Promising Process'

With the latest round of talks on the North Korean nuclear issue ready to resume on Sept. 13, California Congressman Tom Lantos--the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee--recently made a four-day trip to Kim Jong Il's increasingly isolated nation. The aim of his visit: to outline the U.S. position on North Korean nukes to the country's most senior officials, including the foreign minister and representative to the upcoming negotiations. Upon his return to the United States last week, Lantos spoke with NEWSWEEK's Christian Caryl. Excerpts:

CARYL: Why did two high-ranking U.S. congressmen [Lantos and Republican colleague Jim Leach] have to travel to North Korea for talks above and beyond the established negotiating process? Have the Six-Party Talks reached a serious impasse?
LANTOS: No, I think that would be the wrong interpretation. I traveled to North Korea in January, and I had lengthy discussions with much of their leadership because I would like to move toward normalization of relations--just as I have made five trips to Libya in the past year and a half. I already see the fruits of those visits. So, far from being motivated by damage control, the purpose of my visit last January--and the visit of Jim Leach and myself now--was to lubricate what I believe is a very promising process.

So what's the way forward now--a statement on general principles rather than getting bogged down in the details?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact one of the main messages I left with the North Koreans--and as you know Hurricane Katrina unfolded while we were in North Korea--was that the attention of the American people will turn inward for quite some time. The patience of both Congress and the American people has been dramatically abbreviated as a result of these developments. So we will really not look kindly on dilatory diplomatic delays such as we have seen in the past. And the North Koreans would be well advised to recognize that time is not working for them. Time is working against them. I made a very strong point that we are getting tired of being told we have hostile intent. I did not go to North Korea with hostile intent, I went there with a very friendly intent. They have to get over their cliches and slogans and get down to business.

How can the United States and North Korea build up trust?
They complained to me in our meetings about two things: the North Korea Human Rights Act and the recent appointment of an ambassador on that issue. And we pointed out to them that the interest in human rights is a deep-seated interest in Congress, [and] that the State Department 1,000-page report deals with a whole range of countries, not just North Korea. I pointed out to them that we have a huge section on China, yet we have very lively diplomatic, economic, commercial, investment, political, cultural, educational relations with China.

The other thing they complained about was the U.S.-South Korean military exercises. I pointed out to them in the first place that they, too, have regularly scheduled military exercises. Secondly I pointed out that the Chinese and Russians just completed their military exercises, yet our relations with both Russia and China continue in a very constructive fashion. So they have to get over complaining about things they don't like, because this is not helpful. They have to focus on the areas of agreement, and over a period of time build confidence in the United States, in the credibility of their statements and agreements, in which case good things will follow.

Certainly one of the biggest barriers to trust is their alleged uranium-enrichment program. Did that come up in your talks at all?
Very much so. I emphasized the imperative of making the peninsula a nuclear-free zone, and they agreed.

Is a nuclear-free zone really in the cards? Is that something the Bush administration will agree to?
I believe so. And the agreement will have to be fully verifiable. They fully understand that.

But do you think that North Korea would ever agree to the sort of intrusive inspections that would be a necessary precondition for this sort of agreement to work? Wouldn't that amount in itself to virtual regime change?
They are comprehensive inspections. It will be our job to explain to them that the benefits they gain by agreeing to comprehensive verification measures by the IAEA are in their long-term interests.

There's the whole Libyan example. Kaddafi told me at my first meeting, a year and a half ago, that he had an Arab leader sitting in the same chair I was sitting in, and Kaddafi asked him: "What will you do if I give you a nuclear weapon?" Kaddafi answered his own question: "Well, it won't do you any good, because if you use it, the retaliation will be devastating. So there's no point in my giving you a nuclear weapon because it's useless to you, and if it's useless to you it's useless to me." Kaddafi then said to me: "So that's why I'm asking you to take all my nuclear materials and programs away from me." So that's exactly what we did.

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