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Senate Democrats Criticize Bush on North Korea - 2003-03-05

U.S. Senate Democrats are stepping up their criticism of Bush administration policy toward North Korea, and urging direct talks with Pyongyang.

Leading Senate Democrats, joined by former Clinton administration defense and foreign policy officials, expressed concern that Bush administration policy has failed to ease rising tensions with North Korea.

Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the chamber's top Democrat, said "In spite of the high stakes, the White House continues to sit back and watch, playing down the threat and apparently playing for time. But time is not on our side."

The Senate Democrats who gathered for the Capitol Hill news conference said the administration is paralyzed by divisions among U.S. officials over how to approach North Korea. The Senators urged the administration to follow the advice of regional allies and open direct talks with Pyongyang.

But the White House favors multilateral talks and has said there should be no reward for North Korean misbehavior. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The administration approach is the importance of working together in a multilateral fashion with China and Russia and Japan and South Korea. After all, they have a stake in this too."

In the latest incident, North Korean jets intercepted a U.S. surveillance plane over international waters Sunday.

Tensions began to escalate last October, when the administration said North Korea admitted to having a program to enrich uranium in violation of international agreements.

Since then, Pyongyang has expelled United Nations inspectors from the nuclear complex that had been frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States, and fired up the reactor at the site.

The United States has begun deploying a force of 24 long-range bombers to the Pacific island of Guam in connection with the stand-off with North Korea.

But the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, said the United States should work with allies before building up forces in the region.