WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats, demanding a bold new approach to end a diplomatic standoff, urged the Bush administration on Wednesday to send the top U.S. negotiator to North Korea and press for an end to its nuclear weapons program.
Such a mission by Christopher Hill would demonstrate "our peaceful intent," said California Rep. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. Panel members quizzed Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns about the so-far futile effort to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles programs.
Talks involving the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia are expected to resume next month after a suspension of more than a year. Burns said it was not possible yet to announce a precise date.
The U.S. has held sporadic, occasional talks with North Korea in New York and in Beijing. But the administration insists on a six-nation negotiations format in an effort to intensify pressure on the insular communist government.
"The North Korean problem is a regional problem," Burns said. "It poses a threat to all of its neighbors."
But Lantos, the prospective new chairman of the committee when the Democrats take control of Congress in January, said, "the administration's refusal to permit visits (by U.S. diplomats) to North Korea must end and must end now."
Supported by several Democrats on the committee and one Republican, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, Lantos said, "The White House must try a new and bold approach to the vexing North Korean problem."
"I don't understand why it is in the United States' interest to keep them isolated," Leach said.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Brad Sherman of California proposed that the United States offer North Korea a nonaggression pact as part of a deal in which the North Koreans permanently and verifiably give up their nuclear weapons.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., accused the administration of "dithering" and said the U.S. was placing too much reliance on China to stop North Korea's programs. China played a leading diplomatic role in persuading North Korea to end its boycott of negotiations.
GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida cautioned against concessions or any acts of "appeasement."
Meanwhile, an American nuclear scientist who toured North Korea this month said he believed the North had enough fuel for as many as nine nuclear weapons and the capacity to make about one bomb's worth of fuel a year.
Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, met with chief North Korean nuclear scientists during his Oct. 31-Nov. 4 visit. Hecker said that while he learned no technical details about the North's Oct. 9 nuclear test, officials indicated the test was "fully successful."
He said he and the small group of former U.S. officials who made the trip noticed a palpable sense of national pride about the test among the North Koreans they met.
Hecker based his observations on meetings with the director of the North's five-megawatt Yongbyon nuclear facility and with nuclear specialists in China. He said the North Korean nuclear test was most likely "at least partially successful," but the country probably was "still a long way from having a missile-capable nuclear design."