President Bush vowed yesterday to enlist other world powers in persuading North Korea to scrap its nuclear-weapons project but indicated he has no plans to use force as he might with Iraq.
"This is a chance for people who love freedom and peace to work together to deal with an emerging threat," he said. "I believe we can deal with this threat peacefully, particularly if we work together."
Bush, using a more restrained tone than he does when lambasting Iraq, was addressing North Korea's confession about a nuclear program for the first time since administration officials reported it to Washington 16 days earlier. He said he would use meetings over the next week with leaders of China, Japan, Russia and South Korea to discuss how to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "that he must disarm."
"We had a bit of troubling news when we discovered the fact that, contrary to what we had been led to believe, that they were enriching uranium, the idea of developing a nuclear weapon," Bush said. "We felt like they had given their word they weren't going to do this."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded coldly to an offer from North Korea for talks about its nuclear programs, saying that consultations with allies would come first. "International pressure will come to bear on North Korea to make them realize the dangers that they are pursuing, in terms of the future for them will be increasingly isolated if they go down the road that they have indicated they're going down," he said.
Bush is to meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Friday at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. Bush said North Korea will be central to a discussion of how the United States and China can work together to deal with "the true threats of the 21st century." He said North Korea will be discussed in meetings with other world powers during his two-day trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Mexico.
"The people who have got the most at stake, of course, in this posture are the people who are his neighbors," Bush said.
North Korea, which is part of Bush's "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, is a more fearsome foe than Iraq because of the advanced stage of its nuclear program, its larger military and its location adjacent to South Korea, a key U.S. ally. A reporter asked Bush to explain, in terms understandable to the folks back in Texas, why he was threatening war with Iraq but pursuing a diplomatic course with Pyongyang.
"Saddam Hussein is unique, in this sense: He has thumbed his nose at the world for 11 years," Bush said, referring to U.N. resolutions requiring disarmament by Iraq. "What makes him even more unique is the fact he's actually gassed his own people. He has used weapons of mass destruction on neighboring countries, and he's used weapons of mass destruction on his own citizenry. He wants to have a nuclear weapon. He has made it very clear he hates the United States and, as importantly, he hates friends of ours."
Also yesterday, Robert Gallucci, chief negotiator of the 1994 arms-control deal with North Korea, said the United States should suspend but not scrap the agreement. Gallucci said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies program that the world was "much better off" for the agreement and that he expected the nuclear problem could be resolved with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials have said that the revelation about North Korea's nuclear program makes the agreement virtually void and that North Korea considers it nullified. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that no announcement would be made on the administration position until after consultations with allies and Congress.
"We haven't made any specific decisions about many of the details," Boucher said. "We believe we have some leverage in this situation. We're seeking a peaceful and diplomatic solution."
Bush made his comments about North Korea during a photo session with George Robertson, NATO's secretary general, after a brief meeting. Reporters begged Bush to take more questions. "It's too many," Bush said. "I answered 15 questions." At the beginning of the session, Bush had promised to answer three questions. Counting a follow-up, he had taken four, from three reporters.