North Korean leaders fear U.S. aggression if they reduce their nuclear weapons program but are open to negotiating, according to six members of Congress who visited Pyongyang this weekend.

Tensions have increased since Pyongyang admitted to a secret nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials said. House Armed Services Committee Vice-Chairman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said the congressional delegation is optimistic about a peaceful settlement of the crisis.

In October, U.S. officials said Pyongyang confessed that it had a clandestine nuclear program based on uranium enrichment in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States.

The delegation was the first U.S. government group to visit North Korea since that time. U.S. officials said the three Democrats and three Republicans carried no message from Washington.

“Our purpose was to interact as friends and human beings with the people and the leaders of North Korea,” Weldon said during a press conference in Seoul.

The delegation met its two goals: To open a dialogue with North Korean officials and be invited to return.

The meeting made no major breakthroughs, said Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Texas, adding, “I think it was able to open the doors to discussion and dialogue.”

The group met with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, the official KCNA news agency reported. The U.S. legislators also met the chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, or parliament, and other officials, KCNA said. They did not see top North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Also during the meetings, North Korean officials claimed they had nearly finished reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods — a move that could yield nuclear weapons within months.

“They admitted to having nuclear capability and weapons at this moment,” Weldon said. “They admitted to having just about completed the reprocessing of 8,000 rods. And they admitted to an effort to expand their nuclear production program.”

In Washington, a U.S. State Department official expressed doubt about North Korea’s claim that the reprocessing of spent fuel rods was nearly finished.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. intelligence suggests that the North Koreans have a long way to go before reprocessing is completed.

During the meetings, the U.S. delegation presented North Korean leaders a plan to improve regional relations and will present the plan to President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, Weldon said. The six did not discuss details of their plan Monday but said North Koreans found it reasonable.

Weldon said North Korean leaders expressed concern about U.S. aggression because President Bush named the country as part of what he termed an “axis of evil.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said North Korea is using its nuclear weapons and programs as a trump card; it fears giving them up will leave the country vulnerable to outside pressures. “We need to somehow convince them that we all need to live in peace,” he said.

The congressmen said they dangled examples of what could come with a peaceful resolution: an energy pipeline from Russia; food and medicine imports; economic investment and better trade with surrounding countries.

“We can’t do any of these things unless and until we have a normal working relationship between our two governments,” Weldon said.

The delegation didn’t avoid sensitive issues, such as poverty and the sale of illegal drugs and technology to rogue nations, Weldon said, adding the lawmakers also pressed North Korea to start honoring agreements it makes.

In addition to Weldon, Ortiz and Engel, the delegation included Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

The Associated Press and other wire services contributed to this report.

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