BEIJING - North Korea sharply changed tack yesterday, announcing that it would return to the process of international negotiations over its nuclear ambitions and going so far as to state that it would treat the United States "as a friend."
Hours after a U.S. congressional delegation left Pyongyang, North Korea's official news agency said that Pyongyang would come back to six-party talks and try to find solutions to all the problems that stand in the way of a relationship with the United States.
The statement came in a report on KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, and thus was a step removed from a direct commitment by the leadership through diplomatic channels.
North Korea's history of using threats and obfuscation as negotiating tactics also meant that yesterday's statement could be reversed at any time.
But the tone of the North Korean report, characterizing its nemesis, the United States, so positively, was highly unusual and signaled in all likelihood what had been speculated on for days: that North Korea will appear soon in Beijing at a new session of talks with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
North Korea has held the world at bay for more than two years, threatening to develop and deploy nuclear weapons along one of the world's most volatile conflict areas, the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
The United States is demanding that North Korea agree to a verifiable dismantling of all its nuclear activities in exchange for what would eventually become a new relationship with the outside world.
That would offer over time a security guarantee, diplomatic recognition, financial aid and investment and other benefits, all of which could draw the isolated and belligerent regime of Kim Jong Il into the world community to an unprecedented extent.
But coming back to the table would not be the same as agreeing to and abiding by a deal, and it isn't clear if North Korea has the confidence to move ahead or doesn't want to hold out for what it thinks will be more concessions at some future date.
Years of mistrust between the United States and North Korea will be difficult to bridge, and analysts have speculated that North Korea is truly intent on becoming a declared nuclear state.
While three rounds of the six-party talks have been held in Beijing, the fourth round, scheduled for last September, was scuttled by North Korea. Most observers assumed that North Korea had decided to wait until after the U.S. presidential election and then until the top personnel in President Bush's second administration were identified.
Earlier this week, Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, went to Pyongyang and said he tried to persuade the North Koreans that there was no reason to delay. Yesterday, a second congressional delegation, led by Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, left Pyongyang. Hours afterward came the announcement.
North Korea, which refers to itself as the DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, said it told the American lawmakers that it "would opt for finding a final solution to all the outstanding issues between the two countries, to say nothing of the resumption of the six-party talks and the nuclear issue, if what U.S. congressmen said would be formulated as a policy of the second Bush administration."
KCNA continued: "The DPRK side expressed its stand that the DPRK would not stand against the U.S. but respect and treat it as a friend unless the latter slanders the former's system and interferes in its internal affairs."
In Seoul, Weldon, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, characterized his delegation's visit to the North as an "overwhelming success."
Traveling with five other lawmakers, Weldon met with North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who is also North Korea's chief representative to the nuclear negotiations.
"I am convinced, as are all my colleagues, that if in fact we move along the process that we are moving today, the six-party talks can and will resume in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months or years," Weldon said.
He said the goal of his talks was to persuade North Korea to return to negotiations, "to reassure leaders of the DPRK that we wish them no ill will, to reinforce what our president has said, that we do not wish to have a regime change, that we will not pre-emptively attack the North, but we do need to resolve the nuclear issue."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.