WASHINGTON - The United States yesterday gave its clearest pledge yet to hold direct talks with North Korea, as lawmakers pressed the Bush administration to make a more active effort to prevent Pyongyang from developing a nuclear weapons arsenal.
"Of course, we're going to have to have direct talks with the North Koreans. There's no question about it," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He and other officials said the Bush administration is laying the groundwork for such talks in meetings with regional and European allies, as well as with Russia and China, the two nations seen to have the most leverage with North Korea.
But Armitage said there is no timetable for the talks, and Washington first wants to reach a common approach with other countries, so "this thing doesn't rub entirely off on us to come up with a solution." The United States is also waiting for a "steady government" in South Korea, which will inaugurate a new president, Roh Moo Hyun, on Feb. 25.
In a sign that a common approach may be near, the International Atomic Energy Agency scheduled a meeting for Feb. 12 for its 35-member board to discuss the mounting signs that North Korea has stepped up its nuclear weapons activities.
The United States has been pressing the IAEA board to refer the North Korean nuclear problem to the United Nations, which could eventually impose sanctions. Up to now, China and Russia have resisted such a move. The IAEA board operates by consensus.
Since last fall, North Korea has taken a series of provocative steps toward a stepped-up drive to produce nuclear weapons: expelling U.N. weapons inspectors, announcing its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and, most recently, showing signs that it is about to resume the reprocessing of plutonium, a fuel for nuclear weapons.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has put aircraft and warships on alert for possible deployment near the Korean peninsula. Armitage said the move is a precautionary step in case "North Korea would, in some fashion, try to take advantage of our focus on Iraq."
Armitage's testimony on North Korea came on the eve of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's much-anticipated appearance before the United Nations to explain why President Bush is preparing for a possible war against Iraq.
For weeks, critics have accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq while seeking to minimize the danger posed by North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons.
Even some supporters of the Bush administration say it needs to make a more active effort to defuse the North Korean problem, which the White House refuses to call a crisis.
Among the senators who expressed that view yesterday was Indiana's Richard G. Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who said that while the United States should be prepared to use force against North Korea, "we must guarantee to the American public and to Americans serving in Korea that all diplomatic options are being pursued."
He urged the Bush administration to name a high-level official to coordinate policy on North Korea. Many senators, he said, have the impression that while the United States is absorbed with Iraq, "North Korea may simply be on hold."
Armitage came under skeptical questioning from senators, including Maryland Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, over why the administration feels that Iraq poses a more dangerous and immediate threat to the United States.
Armitage acknowledged that North Korea's Stalinist regime has a worse record on arms proliferation than Iraq, and said that if Pyongyang produces more nuclear weapons material, it could sell it to other "rogue states" or terrorists.
While North Korea has so far limited its weapons sales abroad to missiles, this could change if it succeeds in producing more nuclear weapons material, Armitage said.
He said North Korea's financial straits would lead it to sell nuclear material to others.
"I don't think, given the poverty of North Korea, that it would be too long after she got a good amount of fissile material ... that she would be inclined to engage with somebody, a nonstate actor or a rogue state."
The phrase "nonstate actor" is a euphemism for a terrorist group.
The "major difference" between Iraq and North Korea is one of intent, he said.
"We know, we think, what [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il wants," Armitage said. "Some economic benefits and things of that nature." Iraq, by contrast, wants to "intimidate, dominate and attack," he said.
Armitage, in further explaining the differences between the two threats, said diplomatic efforts to ease the North Korean problem were just a few months old, while the United States and other U.N. nations have spent a dozen years trying to persuade Iraq to disarm.