The Bush administration says North Korea's admitted nuclear weapons effort is a serious violation of, among other things, its 1994 "agreed framework" nuclear accord with the United States. But any punitive action will await consultation with U.S. allies.
President Bush has dispatched the State Department's chief Asian affairs expert, James Kelly, and its senior arms-control official, John Bolton, on the consultation mission beginning in China try to build diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Assistant Secretary Kelly and Undersecretary Bolton flew to Beijing Thursday for three days of meetings. Mr. Kelly will then visit Tokyo and Seoul, while Mr. Bolton goes to Moscow, London, Paris and Brussels for talks on what to do in the wake of North Korea's surprise admission that it has a weapons program.
Officials here stressed the administration's desire to resolve the situation peacefully. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says Assistant Secretary Kelly confronted North Korean officials with evidence of the covert nuclear effort earlier this month in Pyongyang with the hope that authorities there would agree to scrap the project.
"We went out to address it through dialogue," he said. "We went out to tell them that we want to proceed down an agenda of resolving these concerns, and doing things, taking steps, that can benefit North Korea and its people, but that this additional serious concern was going to make it impossible. We went out there to tell them they had to deal with it. They had to deal with it by eliminating it in a verifiable manner."
The Bush administration said it had been preparing to offer North Korea a package of economic and political benefits provided it was willing to act on issues of U.S. concern, including halting its weapons of mass destruction programs and missile exports. In the wake of Pyongyang's nuclear disclosure, the administration says it will be "unable to pursue this approach."
Assistant Secretary Kelly went to Pyongyang the first week the month armed with documentary evidence that North Korea was trying to acquire enriched uranium in violation of the 1994 deal, under which it ostensibly shelved its nuclear program in exchange for safeguarded nuclear power plants and other aid.
North Korean officials were said to have at first denied the existence of the nuclear program, but then admitted it to Mr. Kelly while contending it was a reaction to Bush administration policies. However Mr. Boucher says U.S. evidence suggests the weapons effort dates back a number of years, before President Bush took office.
"In those conversations, they attempted to shift the blame to the United States, to say that our actions or statements, particularly in this administration had somehow nullified the agreement," said Richard Boucher. "And we pointed out that this program has been going for some time, since before this administration. So that argument obviously doesn't make any sense.
The spokesman said U.S. evidence of the North Korean weapons effort only became clear in the last few months. And thus he said the Bush administration was not about to criticize President Clinton, who before leaving office sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang and tried to conclude a missile deal with North Korea.
When he took office, President Bush ordered a review of the relationship. And early this year drew an angry response from Pyongyang when he listed North Korea along with Iran and Iraq in an "axis of evil" because of support for terrorism and efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.