WASHINGTON - President Bush explicitly raised yesterday for the first time the possibility of using military force against North Korea, calling it "our last choice" if diplomatic moves fail to halt Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program.
Speaking of efforts to prevent North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal, Bush said, "If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily."
Questioned about Iraq, the president denied he felt any personal anger about an alleged 1993 Iraqi plot that could have killed his father and his wife during a visit to Kuwait. He said the decision he faces about whether to launch an invasion of Iraq "is based upon the security of the American people."
In an interview with The Sun and other newspapers, Bush also said opposition to war by France, Germany and protesters in the United States and elsewhere had resulted in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "getting mixed signals" about the determination of the international community to disarm him.
While Bush has previously said that "all options" were on the table in dealing with the North Korean threat, yesterday marked the first time he specifically mentioned military action.
A White House official said he did not believe the president was raising the stakes in the nearly six-month standoff with North Korea. Bush's comments were "consistent with what the policy has been since this situation began," said the official, who declined to be identified.
Nevertheless, the comments came during a period of heightened tension with the communist regime in Pyongyang. At the time Bush spoke to reporters, the White House was aware that North Korean jets had intercepted an American reconnaissance plane Sunday over the Sea of Japan in the first such incident since 1969.
In recent months, North Korea has taken a series of steps that indicate it plans to resume trying to produce nuclear weapons. The first came in October, when Pyongyang defiantly acknowledged to a visiting American official that it had a program to produce highly enriched uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons.
Last week, U.S. intelligence detected that North Korea had restarted a reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex that could eventually produce a steady supply of plutonium, another type of nuclear fuel. The reactor had been shut down as part of an agreement reached between North Korea and the United States in 1994.
Asked what he would tell nervous Americans about North Korea, the president said, "First, I'll say that, let us accelerate the development of an anti-ballistic missile system" so no nation could threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon.
He also said he hoped to persuade China, Russia, South Korea and Japan "to join us in convincing North Korea that it is not in their nation's interest to be threatening the United States, or anybody else for that matter, with a nuclear weapon."
Asked how successful these efforts had been, Bush said: "It's in process. If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily. And military option is our last choice. Options are on the table, but I believe we can deal with this diplomatically. I truly do."
Dealing with Iraq, Bush gave his most extensive response to date about the alleged 1993 plot to set off a bomb during a Kuwait celebration attended by his father, former President George Bush, and current first lady Laura Bush.
U.S. intelligence agencies at the time blamed Iraq, though doubts have since been raised about the Iraqi connection and about the credibility of the plot itself.
"The fact that he tried to kill my father and my wife shows the nature of the man," Bush said when asked whether he is angry about the plot. "And he not only tried to kill my father and wife, he's killed thousands of his own citizens. ... He's cold-blooded, he's a dictator, and he's a tyrant."
Pressed on whether he holds "any personal anger," Bush paused a moment then said, his voice raspy: "Nah, no. I'm doing my job as the president based upon the threats that face this country. And I wasn't even elected [to] office when he made those threats. I was just a simple citizen. But my calculation, my thinking, the risk assessment I make is based upon Saddam and America today."
Bush said divisions in the West and protests around the world over going to war against Iraq have resulted in Iraq's getting "mixed signals" about the world's determination to see it disarmed of weapons of mass destruction.
Anti-war protesters have "all the right in the world to express their opinion," he said. "If they tried to do that in Iraq, they'd have their tongues cut out."
The president said he is sure there are people around the world who are "still mad we didn't sign Kyoto" - the treaty to combat climate change - and refused to join the International Criminal Court, which could have put "our diplomats and military people on trial."
He added: "Some have said that we must ask permission from the United Nations to protect ourselves. ... I sincerely disagree with those who suggest that U.S. foreign policy must be confined to the United Nations."
Asked whether he is "keeping score" of which nations support or oppose the United States, he replied, "We'll be disappointed if people don't support us." But, he said, there wouldn't be "significant retribution."
He noted, though, "There is an interesting phenomena taking place here about the French. And there is a backlash against the French - not stirred up by anybody except the people."
The president nevertheless said that relations with France and Germany, the two leading opponents of war with Iraq, will continue to be important to the United States.