U.S. lawmakers are expressing new concerns about the Bush administration's approach to resolving tensions with North Korea. The top U.S. official for East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, told a congressional hearing Thursday that diplomacy remains the best option right now.
As the Bush administration was announcing its opposition to U.N. sanctions against North Korea, for now, Mr. Kelly was detailing the dangers posed by Pyongyang's nuclear development efforts.
He said North Korea could produce between four and six nuclear weapons by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
This, Mr. Kelly says, and the ongoing danger of proliferation of weapons or materials to rogue states or terrorists, poses a serious challenge, one the administration has chosen to deal with diplomatically.
"While we will not dole out rewards to convince North Korea to live up to its existing obligations, we remain prepared to talk to North Korea and to transform our relations with it, once the North comes into compliance with its international obligations and commitments, and meets our concerns," he said.
Mr. Kelly says North Korea needs to realize that this is a multilateral issue, but adds that it's not clear if it takes seriously the referral of the situation to the U.N. Security Council.
Lawmakers on the House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee questioned how the Bush administration can pursue a military approach in dealing with Iraq, while using diplomacy with North Korea. "These are reckless and dangerous people," said Congressmen Ed Royce, Republican California. "They have starved and killed far more of their own people than Saddam Hussein has done to his, the record will show. And maintains a vast system of forced labor and prison activities that continue to abuse tens of thousands of their people every day."
Others were critical of what they called China's lack of cooperation on North Korea, saying Beijing should use its economic leverage with Pyongyang by cutting off trade, loans and subsidies. "[We have] to persuade China that they have to be more than a letter carrier. That they have got to understand they cannot trade with North Korea and do business as usual with the United States," said Democratic Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown.
Mr. Kelly acknowledges such a move would have a serious impact on North Korea, but it is not certain it would resolve the problem.
China's United Nations ambassador said Thursday while the North Korean issue is now in the hands of the security council, Beijing believes it can still be resolved through bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea.
Several lawmakers expressed frustration over what they called the apparent naiveté of South Koreans about North Korea, and expressed doubts about Seoul's "Sunshine Policy" toward Pyongyang.
Mr. Kelly downplayed this, saying anti-Americanism in the South is a complex issue. He added that South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has taken a strong position that the North's nuclear development efforts are unacceptable.