Secretary of State Colin Powell interrupts intensive diplomacy on the Iraq later Friday as he begins a five-day mission to Asia where the focus will be on North Korea and its recent nuclear moves. He'll visit Japan and then China and complete the trip by representing the United States at the inauguration of incoming South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
There will be some discussion of Iraq on the trip, particularly in China, given Beijing's permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But the overriding focus will be on North Korea with Mr. Powell pressing the nuclear issue as a regional problem, requiring a multilateral response.
Mr. Powell will stop first in Tokyo for meetings with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then on to Beijing late Sunday where he will meet, among others, President Jiang Zemin and the new Communist Party chief Hu Jintao.
U.S. officials have made clear in advance of the visit that they would like to see China, North Korea's main trading partner and aid provider, use more of its leverage on Pyongyang to roll back its recent nuclear moves.
China has also framed crisis as a bilateral matter between Washington and North Korea. But Mr. Powell stressed Thursday the United States and China do agree on the basic danger posed by a nuclearized North Korea.
"I cannot say to you now that we have found a way to arrange a meeting, a multi-lateral meeting, to consider the North Korean situation. But the United States and China have a shared view that the North Korean nuclear program is not acceptable, and that the Korean peninsula must not have nuclear weapons," he said.
A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the eve of Mr. Powell's departure said there was a tendency on the part of both China and Russia to want to wish the problem away, and let the United States deal with it, and also to accept on face value assurances from Pyongyang that it is not seriously pursuing nuclear weapons.
But he said the United States, especially in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, cannot afford to make such an assumption and stressed the danger that fissionable material from North Korea might find its way into hands of "non-state players."
Though the United States supported the referral of the North Korean issue to the U.N. Security Council, the senior official said the administration is not now pursuing sanctions against Pyongyang. However he said "nothing is off the table" in the future if North Korea stays on its current path.
He also flatly denied that the United States, the largest single donor of food aid to North Korea, intends to use food as a weapon in the nuclear dispute, and said he expects decisions shortly on further shipments now that relevant budget legislation has gotten through Congress.
At the same time, he said the United States has continuing concerns about the distribution of the aid, delivered to North Korea by U.N.'s World Food Program, and wants to be sure food is not being diverted from those in dire need.
Mr. Powell will head the U.S. delegation at next Tuesday's South Korean presidential inauguration and discuss plans for an early Washington trip by the incoming leader, Mr. Roh, one of the few leading politicians in that country who has never visited the United States.