Kerry said he would immediately begin bilateral negotiations with North Korea -- a goal the Pyongyang government has long sought. But, perhaps in a nod to the sensitivities of the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese, he said he would not abandon the six-nation talks.
"I would keep them both going," Kerry said. "I would do the six-party [talks], but I would engage in bilateral discussions."
The Bush administration has argued that bilateral talks would reward North Korea for its behavior, and has contended that it is necessary to include the other nations to ensure a regional solution. Kerry declined to say what he would offer North Korea as inducements to give up its weapons but said he would be willing to discuss a broad agenda that includes reducing troop levels on the Korean peninsula, replacing the armistice that ended the Korean War and even reunifying North and South Korea.
Kerry said Bush has made a serious mistake by not talking directly with Pyongyang. Of the North Korean leader, he said his advisers -- such as former defense secretary William J. Perry and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger -- told him that when they were in the Clinton administration "they had no illusion that Kim Jong Il was probably cheating over here and [creating] trouble over there, but they were getting the process of a dialogue to get a verification structure."
"You are better off engaged in that effort than disengaged," Kerry said.
Kerry was more cautious on whether he would allow talks with Iran, which has not had relations with the United States since the 1979 revolution. "It is one of the ironies of the Middle East," he said. "You look at Egypt and Saudi Arabia and you have governments who like us and people who don't. In the case of Iran, you have a government who doesn't and people who do."
But Kerry said he would need to know what the United States could expect if it began talks with the Islamic republic, sandwiched between the two countries recently invaded by the United States -- Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he is "prepared carefully to explore the possibilities of what direct engagement might provide. But I'm not just going to engage in it for nothing."
Kerry has regularly attacked Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail as an unreliable partner in the fight against terrorism. He suggested he would punish the Saudis if they did not cooperate more fully on money laundering and the tracking of terrorist financing.
"We cannot be hamstrung on Saudi oil," he said. "I don't believe we have a free voice in the Middle East as long as we are dependent on the oil card. That is exactly what gets played. I think there has been this sweetheart arrangement that has deprived us of that ability."
On Egypt, Kerry said that he would not tie foreign aid to greater openness and reform. "I would first want to link it to the warmth of the relationship with Israel and the effort to secure general stability in Middle East," he said. "You have to put your priorities first."
Kerry said that China, tightly ruled by the Communist Party, could be the "principal partner" in his anti-proliferation effort and that it is essential to build a partnership that recognizes "the unbelievable economic power and clout" the nation will acquire in the coming years. "China is moving" on democracy on its own accord, he said, asserting that although the central government is focused on party control, "the contest of different ideas at local levels is quite vibrant."
Kerry said Pakistan is a "critical relationship," and he said he would not immediately pressure President Pervez Musharraf to loosen the reins of power.
"Is he a strongman to a degree? Did he promise elections that have not occurred and all the rest? Yeah," Kerry said. "I don't see that as the first thing that is going to happen in our priority of making America safer. It is a long-term goal. It is a goal that I will keep on the table. But it is not the first thing that has to happen."
Instead, Kerry said, the first priority is keeping nuclear weapons from radical Islamists in Pakistan, with the secondary objective of crushing al Qaeda through better intelligence sharing with Pakistani security services.
Kerry evinced little concern about the possibility that Islamic parties could sweep elections in Middle Eastern nations if open elections were permitted. He said he would not try to thwart the results if it appeared Islamic parties might win.
"The last time I looked, except for Florida, an election is an election," Kerry said.