BEIJING - Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who played a role in the negotiations to end Libya's nuclear program, said yesterday after a visit to North Korea that he was "considerably more optimistic" that Pyongyang was ready to return to the stalled six-party talks over its nuclear ambitions.
"I hope my visit opens a new chapter in U.S.-North Korea relations, just as my three visits to Libya in 2004 have played an important role in dramatically improving Libya-U.S. relations," said Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, at a news conference in Beijing.
North Korea has kept the world at bay for more than two years, alternately threatening to deploy nuclear weapons and participating in talks to give up its nuclear programs in exchange for a comprehensive aid and security package.
Given North Korea's history of bellicosity and brinkmanship, Lantos' three days of meetings with Pyongyang's leadership are no indication of whether the long-running diplomatic impasse is closer to a resolution. But the visit by Lantos, a vocal critic of Pyongyang in Congress, was an opportunity for President Kim Jong Il to send a message to Washington.
Three rounds of talks since 2003 involving the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have made little headway.
Lantos said the North had indicated that it might be ready to continue talks. He said he asserted in "blunt and realistic" terms that the United States is ready to negotiate a verifiable, comprehensive deal in which North Korea would receive security guarantees, diplomatic recognition, economic and educational assistance, and other benefits in exchange for abandoning its nuclear activities.
"I had extremely serious, professional and valuable dialogues," Lantos said, adding that he left meetings with North Korea's foreign minister, vice president and others feeling that his message had been heard.
Lantos, who did not meet with Kim, said he hoped to return for more talks in a month.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.