[FOUNTAIN]Congressmen and gasWhile U.S. president George W. Bush was heading towards Evian, France, via St. Petersburg, Russia, aboard Air Force One, another military aircraft was lifting off from Washington. Among its passengers were six congressmen, including Curt Weldon, who had been assigned to go to Pyeongyang by the Bush administration.
Their visit was the first official visit to North Korea by congressmen since the end of the Korean War. The timeliness of their trip made it even more significant. Only days earlier, the U.S.-Korea and U.S.-Japan summits had left the door open to apply “additional measures” or “tougher steps” to the North Korean regime. Moreover, the summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and a working-level conference of officials from Korea, Japan and the United States was soon to be held.
Mr. Weldon is a nine-term congressman and the chairman of a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. As a leading Republican representative specializing on U.S.-Russian relations, he has personal ties with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, the two members of the influential U.S. hawks. Congressman Weldon has a keen interest in the energy sector as well, and delivered an opening address at a closed conference on energy cooperation in Northeast Asia held last January in Washington. He also has close links with FSI, a firm participating in a project to build a pipeline to deliver natural gas from the Russian island of Sakhalin to Korea.
Mr. Weldon and his colleagues visited Russia last January to confer with representatives of Russian oil companies and officials from the North Korean Embassy in Moscow. They tried to include a trip to Pyeongyang in a tour of Central Asia, Beijing and Seoul in May, an effort that was repeatedly rejected by North Korean officials.
To the surprise of many observers, the current visit was arranged at the abrupt request of the North Koreans. In a press conference before his departure, Mr. Weldon said that he would explain to the North Koreans that economic assistance from Washington would come if Pyeongyang were to renounce a nuclear program and makes efforts to mend ties with the United States. We may soon see if talk of a gas pipeline begins again.
By Kim Seok-hwan email@example.com
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.