Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in Asia to prod North Korea to return to talks on ending its nuclear programs, said that although there is still time to resolve the impasse, "there is a sense of urgency."
In a three-day swing through East Asian capitals, Powell is seeking to persuade U.S. allies to put additional pressure on North Korea. Japan's foreign minister, Nobutaka Machimura, told reporters after meeting with Powell that Japan would use a planned dialogue with North Korea next month on the subject of abducted citizens to urge its return to the bargaining table.
Even more critical to the effort is China, North Korea's main benefactor. Powell arrived in Beijing on Sunday evening to prepare for meetings with Chinese officials Monday.
Powell's deputy, Richard L. Armitage, bluntly told a Chinese official in Washington recently that China needed to view itself not as a mediator but as a participant in the effort against North Korea, according to an official familiar with the conversation.
In April, Vice President Cheney visited the region and declared that "time is not necessarily on our side" in dealing with the North Korean threat. He asserted that the Pyongyang government, given its record, could peddle nuclear technology to terrorist groups. Moreover, he warned that "we [may] have a nuclear arms race unleashed in Asia."
Asked Sunday about Cheney's statement, Powell said: "We are not out of time. . . . We are all pressing hard, there is a sense of urgency. But President Bush has made it clear that he intends to use diplomacy and political activity, working with our friends and neighbors in a multilateral way, to solve this problem."
Yet, in an interview later with Japanese journalists, Powell harshly criticized North Korea, calling it a "terrorist state" for abducting Japanese citizens and saying it "shows a disrespect for human rights."
Machimura said Japan was "very much concerned with reports and views that the North Koreans have possibly established a nuclear weapons program." But he rejected Cheney's notion of a nuclear arms race, saying Japan's commitment to not possessing nuclear weapons would not change, because the country is protected by a U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty. He added that "we have had some concrete discussions" about ballistic missile defense.
North Korea has refused to return to talks, last scheduled for September. Many analysts say they believe the Pyongyang government is waiting for the results of the U.S. presidential election. But North Korea has also cited what it calls the Bush administration's "hostile policy," pointing to a naval exercise this week off the coast of Japan and Bush's signing of a bill targeting North Korean human rights.
In the naval exercise, ships from the United States, Japan and other countries will practice halting a vessel as if it contained chemical weapons. The bill approved by Bush last week establishes a special envoy for North Korean human rights and calls on the administration to make human rights an issue in talks with the Pyongyang government.
North Korea has complained bitterly about both issues, saying U.S. actions have forced it to bolster its "nuclear deterrent."
Powell insisted that "neither of these actions are hostile actions."