President Bush again drew a sharp distinction yesterday in his policies toward Iraq and North Korea, telling reporters that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's "day of reckoning was coming" but that he was sure the "situation with North Korea will be resolved peacefully."
The president's remarks, made as he was vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., underscored the administration's determination to play down the crisis over North Korea's vow to restart a nuclear reactor as the United States presses ahead with a potential military conflict in Iraq.
The president emphasized that the administration was working with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions. But he noted that only Hussein was able to prevent a war over Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Iraq says it has ended all of its banned weapons programs.
"He's a danger to the American people; he's a danger to our friends and allies," Bush said of Hussein. "For 11 long years, the world has dealt with him. And now he's got to understand, his day of reckoning is coming. Therefore, he must disarm voluntarily."
On North Korea, Bush said the United States and other key nations in northern Asia were determined to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Despite signs of rifts between the United States and its allies in the region, Bush said all were pressing North Korea to reverse its decision to resume its nuclear program.
"They may be putting pressure on, and you just don't know about it," he told reporters. "It's a diplomatic issue, not a military issue, and we're working all fronts."
The State Department said yesterday that a regular working group on North Korea, composed of diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan, will meet in Washington on Monday and Tuesday. After that, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly will travel to Asia for additional consultations.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that contrary to some reports, the United States was not seeking to bring economic sanctions or cut off food aid to North Korea because of the standoff over the nuclear facility. He said North Korea is missing an opportunity to build better relations with its neighbors and the United States because of its actions.
"North Korea's isolating itself," Boucher said. "We're going to continue to coordinate, we're going to continue to apply pressure, we'll look for a peaceful and diplomatic solution, but there should be no doubt North Koreans are isolating themselves and they are already paying the price."
Boucher added, "We have not been asking people to impose any kind of economic sanctions."
The spokesman also dismissed suggestions of differences between the United States and South Korea, saying that Washington will coordinate closely with the new government in Seoul on policy toward North Korea.
South Korea's incoming president, Roh Moo Hyun, was elected last month in part on a platform of protesting Bush's hard-line stance on North Korea. In its New Year's message, the North Korean government urged South Koreans to join it in opposition to U.S. policies. But yesterday, South Korea rejected the proposal and told Pyongyang to stop saber-rattling.