Two of the Bush administration's top foreign policy officials yesterday vigorously refuted charges that the administration withheld North Korea's admission of a nuclear weapons program from key congressional Democrats to ensure passage of its resolution authorizing war with Iraq.
"Why would we have withheld it because of that?" Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on "Fox News Sunday." "I mean, I think, if anything, it reinforces our need to respond to these kinds of challenges. And so I think it is not an accurate charge."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said that the administration held back news of North Korea's stunning admission only long enough to allow President Bush to receive recommendations from his advisers on the matter. Meanwhile, she said, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle had been receiving briefings for months about U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea had resumed its nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States and others.
"Well, it's a peculiar notion that the moment that you find out something like this, you need to make it public before the president has had a chance to review his options," Rice said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "There were members of Congress who were briefed prior to this going public. . . . And there were a number of congressional committees and staff that had been briefed over a longer period of time about our suspicions of a highly-enriched uranium program in North Korea."
Late last week, Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized the 12-day gap between the admission by North Korean officials -- made during a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly -- and the administration's public disclosure. During that time, Congress passed the Iraq resolution, which Bush signed just hours before the administration confirmed the developments in North Korea during a conference call with reporters.
President Bush has refrained from comment on the North Korea developments since news of the admission broke last week. But yesterday Powell and Rice said the administration is pursuing a deliberate, multilateral strategy that includes some of North Korea's closest neighbors -- South Korea, China, Japan and Russia -- to address the budding crisis.
Not only are those countries more directly threatened than the United States by a nuclear-armed North Korea, administration officials said, but also ongoing international efforts to monitor North Korea's stockpiles of plutonium, which can be refined for use in nuclear weapons, must not be disrupted. Also, they said, North Korea's pressing economic needs offer some promising points of diplomatic leverage.
"This is an opportunity for the international community to stand up together and to say to the North Koreans, 'If you have any hope of breaking out of your isolation, your economic isolation, your political isolation, that hope is going to be dashed by continuing to pursue illegal nuclear weapons programs,' " Rice said.
The administration's relatively restrained response to North Korea's acknowledgement that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program is seen by some critics as inconsistent, given the dire terms it uses to describe the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who has chemical and biological weapons but is believed to be years away from developing a nuclear bomb.
Speaking on "Face the Nation," Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the administration may be going too far to play down the threat posed by North Korea.
"If you put the two, North Korea and Iraq, on the scales and ask the question, which today is the greater threat to the people of the United States of America, I would answer the question North Korea," he said. "And I think that needs to be part of the rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities."