President Bush suggested yesterday that the U.S.-led military defeat of Iraq had spurred concessions by North Korea, and he said he sees increasing chances for nuclear-control talks that include Pyongyang.
The administration has insisted that such talks include its friends and allies in the region, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had been demanding the greater leverage that would come with a one-on-one dialogue with the United States.
North Korea backed off that requirement Saturday and seemed to drop its demand for a nonaggression pact with the United States. Bush said his formula for multinational talks with North Korea looked like it "might be coming to fruition."
"That's very good news for the people in the Far East who are concerned about North Korea and their willingness to develop nuclear weapons," Bush said on his return from a weekend at Camp David. "We're making progress on all fronts."
He also continued to lend his personal weight to the escalating administration rhetoric about Syria. "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," he said.
CIA reports list Syria as a country that possesses or is building chemical and biological weapons, along with missiles to deliver them. But the president himself had never made the accusation, and U.S. officials took his statement as very significant, since the possession of weapons of mass destruction was his chief reason for confronting Iraq. Officials of the Defense and State departments have been increasing the pressure on Syria with near-daily warnings and complaints about abetting terrorists. Syria contends it has closed its border with Iraq so hunted officials cannot flee, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that Damascus had "not noticeably" increased its cooperation with the United States.
Pyongyang's willingness to talk in a format acceptable to the United States followed the overwhelming force Bush unleashed on one member of his "axis of evil," with North Korea and Iran remaining. The White House had tried to defer attention from North Korea while it focused on Iraq, with officials refusing to describe the restarting of a North Korean nuclear reactor as a crisis.
Bush's comments yesterday indicated he is now ready to focus on North Korea's nuclear program, which some Democrats in Congress have said has required his urgent attention for months.
Administration officials said they saw North Korea's accommodations as evidence of the success of their strategy of presenting North Korea with stiff terms for talks, but dealing publicly with Pyongyang less confrontationally than with Iraq. These officials said they had put special effort in working with China and Russia to pressure North Korea.
Bush was asked if he thought North Korea had received a message from Saddam Hussein's fate.
"I think that people have got to know that we are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and that each situation requires a different response," Bush said. "But we are making good progress in North Korea."
Robert L. Gallucci, President Bill Clinton's chief negotiator of a 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea, said Saturday's statement represented "something of a vindication for the administration." But he said Pyongyang's position may have shifted for reasons besides Iraq, including the intervention of the Chinese and Russians.
Gallucci, now dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said a key question now will be whether Bush will set preconditions for the talks, such as disassembling a uranium enrichment program under the eyes of international inspectors.
Bush, speaking on the South Lawn of the White House, reiterated the U.S. position that the Korean Peninsula must be free of nuclear weapons. "The good news is it's a position shared by the Chinese; it's a position shared by the South Koreans; and it's a position shared by the Japanese," he said. "So we've got common interests, and working together, I am very hopeful we'll be able to achieve those interests, diplomatically."
Nicholas Eberstadt, an authority on North Korea at the American Enterprise Institute, said the swift U.S. progress in Iraq had increased both its bargaining position with North Korea and its sway over the friends and allies in the region that it would need to cooperate in securing arms-control pledges from Pyongyang.
"Shock and awe hasn't only happened in Iraq," Eberstadt said. "It's happening all through the axis of evil and even beyond." On Syria, Bush repeated his Friday admonition that Iraq's neighbor must not provide a haven to Hussein, his generals or his relatives. Administration officials have said they suspect many of the most-wanted Iraqis may have taken refuge across the border in Syria.
"The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition partners and not harbor any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account for their tenure during what we are learning more and more about," Bush said. "It was one of the most horrendous governments ever."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.