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U.S. Congressional Team Is Snubbed by North Korea

Asia: Delegates planned visit to smooth the way for dialogue but wound up being denied visas.

June 04, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — They flew all the way to Asia with the intention of visiting North Korea. When visas weren't forthcoming, they asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Chinese President Jiang Zemin to intercede.

But the delegation of 12 U.S. Congress members ended up flying home to Washington on Monday, frustrated by an unmistakable snub from the North Korean government.

"Here was a chance to open the door, and they slammed it in our face," Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who led the delegation, said at a breakfast meeting with journalists Monday in Seoul.

The 10-day trip included stops in Russia, Uzbekistan, China and South Korea, but the delegates' main goal was to visit North Korea in an effort to smooth the way for an official dialogue.

The delegation's star-crossed adventures highlighted the difficulty of dealing with North Korea, which has a reputation in diplomatic circles as one of the world's most eccentric and unpredictable countries. Although delegation members did not have visas when they left Washington, Weldon said they had an "understanding of an entry" into North Korea, around which they built their itinerary.

When they arrived last week in Beijing--the only city with regular flights to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital--they found there were no visas. They met with Jiang on Wednesday and asked him to intervene, then waited. They tore up their schedule, canceling a stop in Hong Kong, then waited some more. Then they flew to Seoul, working more channels and hoping as late as Sunday night that they might still obtain visas.

"Someday I could write a book about trying to get into North Korea," said Weldon, who added that he understood that the matter went as high as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. "I think you have to have a magical code to punch the numbers in."

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat, added: "The real truth is that it is Kim Jong Il's loss. This gentleman does not want his people to interface with others."

Ironically, the rebuff to the congressional delegation came at a time when North Korea has indicated publicly that it wants to attract foreign investment and tourists.

Over the last month, the North Koreans have been staging an elaborate festival of mass acrobatics in a pitch for visitors. But attendance has been disappointing, with fewer paying guests than performers at Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day stadium. In most cases, the North Koreans have refused visas to tourists holding U.S. or South Korean passports.

"While they [the North Koreans] have opened up in certain ways and they are making noises consistent with economic reform, there still seems to be some reluctance to take the bull by the horns," Bradley Babson, a North Korea specialist with the World Bank, said at a conference in Seoul.

The last time an official U.S. representative traveled to Pyongyang was in October 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the capital. U.S.-North Korea relations have deteriorated badly during President Bush's term and especially since January, when Bush branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran.

U.S. special envoy Jack Pritchard was expected to visit Pyongyang last month, but the trip was delayed, according to sources, in part because of divisions within the Bush administration about the message Pritchard should convey to the North Koreans.

North Korea's obstreperous negotiating tactics are famous among diplomats. It is not uncommon for the country to abruptly change plans or withdraw invitations, though seldom to such a senior delegation. In December 2000, an American business delegation organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul traveled to Beijing with an invitation to Pyongyang, but its members were also denied visas.

Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, said the rebuff to the congressional delegation was not necessarily a signal that North Korea does not want a dialogue with the United States. He said the North Koreans might be waiting for the Pritchard visit to determine what the Bush administration's policy will be.

"The North Koreans don't really appreciate what Congress' role is," Snyder said. "But congressmen are very persistent. They are not used to taking no for an answer."

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