A few weeks ago, a bipartisan Congressional delegation traveled about 30,000 miles total, experiencing temperature differences from below zero to 90 degrees and adjusting to a schedule 12 hours ahead of Washington, D.C.
The CODEL had been organized months ago by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman of the Armed Forces subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, and it included Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas). The main objective had been convincing North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks on nuclear weapons. But when a massive tsunami struck southern Asia on Dec. 26, plans changed.
“Immediately when the tsunami hit, I knew we had to make a stop there,” Weldon said about adding a “detour” to Banda Aceh, Indonesia. “It was a major deviation, one day in the air, but it was worth it.”
The delegation left Washington on Jan. 9 and returned Jan. 18, traveling to North Korea and the four other countries involved with the six-party talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — in addition to Indonesia.
While on the ground in Indonesia for only a couple of hours, the Representatives helped unload the supplies and spent some time with families affected by the disaster. Including Indonesia in the trip route added about 11 extra hours in the air for the Members, but the “heartwarming” and “moving” experience was well worth it.
“We had box-loads of teddy bears, soccer balls, footballs and chess sets because the kids over there that have been so ravaged of everything need to be kids again,” Weldon said. “You might have thought we brought bags of gold.”
While many of the families the Members met spoke little English, interpreters were present to facilitate communication. The CODEL worked with Virginia-based International Relief and Development, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, in distributing the supplies.
Bartlett said while it was “too bad that we had the need to do it,” the response was great and there was no “ulterior motive other than to help people that needed help.”
For the majority of the trip, the front section of the plane was occupied by about 12,000 pounds of supplies for the tsunami victims. While each of the six Members had more than one seat, they were “in every kind of configuration you can imagine” trying to get some rest, as the armrests did not fold all the way up and the seat belt buckles stuck out. Despite the lack of comfort, Weldon said the trip was a success.
“It was quite a shock,” Bartlett said about the stop in Indonesia. “We had just come from Siberia a few days before where it was 30 below, and I stepped off that plane and it was like stepping into an oven. I wasn’t dressed for Indonesia, we went through about a 120-degree temperature span.”
The Representatives were scheduled to spend another night in Beijing, but instead spent that time traveling to Indonesia. However, the trip was “extremely positive” overall, as North Korea said it would rejoin the talks.
“It’s a reality that they have a nuclear bomb,” Engel said of the North Koreans. “They indicated they were willing to give up their nuclear weapons — I think that was a very good thing.”
Weldon took another CODEL to North Korea about 18 months ago that Engel also participated in. Engel said he saw a big difference in the North Koreans’ attitudes toward the United States, and that is something he and the others want to keep building on. While the next trip is not yet set in stone, the delegation would like to go back in March.
“We went there just as fellow human beings, we didn’t go there to negotiate,” Bartlett said. “We established a surprising rapport with them. We were fathers and grandfathers talking to fathers and grandfathers — I hope we can continue with it.”