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Bush says his first choice is diplomacy


CHICAGO -- President Bush, pressed yesterday on whether he had been tough enough toward North Korea, defended his search for a diplomatic response to the Communist nation's test-firing of seven missiles this week.

In an unusual full-dress news conference outside Washington, D.C., Bush met with reporters in the rotunda of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry during a trip in which he also went to a 60th-birthday dinner the previous night held by Mayor Richard M. Daley and a fundraiser yesterday for Judy Baar Topinka, the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Asked why he had sent troops to Iraq but not North Korea, Bush said he had exhausted diplomatic channels before toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. The effort to rid North Korea of its missiles and nuclear weapons, he said, is not so far along.

"The problem with diplomacy," the president said, is that "it takes a while to get something done. If you're acting alone, you can move quickly. When you're rallying world opinion and trying to come up with the right language at the United Nations ... it takes a while."

Hussein violated more than 15 U.N. resolutions demanding that he open to international inspectors his suspected production sites for weapons of mass destruction, the president said.

North Korea has violated a number of agreements with the members of the so-called "six-party talks" - North and South Korea, Russia, China and Japan as well as the United States - but the number is substantially fewer than 15.

Bush declined to say whether he had ruled out military force as an option against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. "We want to solve all problems diplomatically," Bush said. "That's our first choice."

North Korea fired seven missiles on Wednesday, six of them short-range missiles that dropped harmlessly into the Sea of Japan. The seventh, a long-range missile, malfunctioned less than a minute after its launch and also fell into the Sea of Japan.

Bush was asked whether U.S. defense officials had determined where the trajectory of that missile, which has the theoretical capacity to reach the West Coast, would have taken it. "I still can't give you any better answer than yesterday," he replied.

Asked whether U.S. missile defenses could have intercepted the North Korean missile if it had traveled far enough, the president said, "I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down."

On other issues, Bush said:

He was not offended that an aide to Topinka was quoted as saying that the candidate regarded Bush's appearance as a minus rather than a plus. The president said he expected to help raise a lot of money for her gubernatorial campaign.

He said he would abide by the Supreme Court decision ruling out military tribunals for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who had been taken from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said he did not believe that the Geneva Conventions, which govern treatment of prisoners in wars, applied to the war on terrorism. He again said he would work with Congress, as the court suggested, on legislation authorizing the military tribunals.

He said he thought Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor who has secured the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the CIA leak investigation, was doing his job in a "very professional" way.

The White House went out of its way to make it clear that Bush was not in Washington for his news conference, arranging for the president to stand in front of a large photograph of the Chicago skyline. "These trips are good for the president because he can get out of the Beltway," presidential press secretary Tony Snow said Thursday.

Peter Wallsten and Joel Havemann write for the Los Angeles Times.

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