The Bush administration says it wants to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program peacefully, and is dispatching top diplomats to other countries for consultations. President Bush will personally discuss the issue next week during talks at his Texas ranch with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The White House is counting on international pressure to convince North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea acknowledged the secret program after it was confronted with new evidence obtained by the United States.
State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday the administration's approach to the problem will focus on diplomacy. "It is a very serious matter," he said. "We have called on North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner. We will watch and see if they do that and at the same time, we are consulting and discussing with friends and allies what sort of steps we should take."
At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he thinks North Korea already has nuclear devices, even though intelligence officials have not been able to confirm their existence. "No one that I would have any confidence in has touched them, but I believe they have a small number of nuclear weapons," he said.
President Bush did not comment personally Thursday on North Korea, keeping his public focus on Iraq. "It is now up to Mr. Saddam Hussein to do what he said he would do to disarm," said Preident Bush. "It is now up to the free nations of the world to show some courage and backbone and disarm him."
A spokesman said Mr. Bush found the North Korean admission to be "troubling, sobering news." But Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the threat posed by Iraq is unique, as Baghdad has already shown its willingness to attack its neighbors, and use chemical and biological weapons.
Mr. McClellan defended the administration's reliance on quiet diplomacy in dealing with North Korea, while calling for strong international action to disarm Iraq.
But on Capitol Hill, there were calls for the President to take a tough stand against Pyongyang. Congressman Ed Markey a Massachusetts Democrat said North Korea has violated a 1994 agreement in which it promised to freeze its nuclear weapons in exchange for help building nuclear power facilities and other aid. "The United States should immediately half all construction of these reactors, cease all nuclear cooperation with North Korea, and call upon South Korea and Japan to do the same," he said. "In addition, we believe the United States should no longer provide fuel oil or other economic aid other than food or medical supplies to North Korea."
South Korea and Japan reacted with both surprise and caution to the news of North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program. One official in Seoul said the admission may be a sign Pyongyang is willing to resolve the issue through dialogue.