Two key Senate Democrats are calling on the Bush administration to open bilateral talks with North Korea in an effort to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons ambitions. Their comments come as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is traveling in the region to rally support for a U.N. resolution to isolate North Korea following its nuclear test.
The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, says it is time the Bush administration drop its refusal to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea.
"We have got to see if we can now change the direction in our Korean policy to see if we can't turn this around and prevent North Korea from pursuing their nuclear ambitions any further," he said.
Levin made his comments in a conference call with reporters. He was joined by Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and fellow member of the Armed Services Committee.
"The important thing is to start talking," he said.
Both senators agree the United States should engage in bilateral talks with North Korea in coordination with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia - the countries taking part in the six-party negotiations aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.
North Korea has boycotted those talks for more than a year, demanding that the United States drop financial sanctions it has imposed to punish Pyongyang for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.
The Bush administration has refused to deal directly with Pyongyang outside the six-party framework. U.S. officials note that the 1994 bilateral nuclear freeze deal with North Korea negotiated by the Clinton administration collapsed in 2002 amid U.S. charges of North Korean cheating.
Senators Levin and Reed called on President Bush to appoint a coordinator for North Korea policy to more effectively deal with the issue.
They note a defense authorization bill recently signed by President Bush calls for him to name such a coordinator within 60 days.