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Bush Confident Nuclear Dispute  with Pyongyang Can be Resolved Through Diplomacy

President Bush leveled new criticism at the North Korean leadership Thursday, but at the same time reaffirmed his determination to resolve the nuclear dispute with Pyongyang through diplomatic means. The Bush administration, meanwhile, said it would continue its leading role in providing food aid to the impoverished Asian country.

President Bush devoted much of his first talk with reporters in the new year to North Korea, accusing that country's leader, Kim Jong Il, of being responsible for the country's dire poverty and hunger.

But at the same time, he stressed his belief that the nuclear conflict with Pyongyang will be resolved through diplomacy and not military force, while downplaying the notion of a rift between the United States and its allies on the issue.

In informal remarks at his Texas ranch, Mr. Bush said the United States is working with its friends and allies in the region, including China, to "explain clearly" to North Korea that is not in its interest to develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction.

He also stressed that the development Pyongyang has cited as the reason for its recent series of nuclear moves - the cut-off of fuel oil shipments to North Korea - was a collective decision of the parties administering the 1994 nuclear accord with North Korea and not a unilateral step by Washington.

"The decision to cut off fuel oil was a joint decision," explained Mr. Bush. "It was not a U.S. decision. It was jointly made with the South Koreans and the Japanese and the European Union, for that matter. It's important for the American people to remember the history of Kim Jong Il. He created some international tension and the United States went and signed an agreement with him. And the agreement was that we'd provide, along with others, fuel oil and help, and in return he would not enrich uranium. Well, it turns out he was enriching uranium, and we blew the whistle on the fact that he was in violation of the '94 agreement."

As Mr. Bush spoke, officials here were stressing the degree of consultation with allies over the nuclear issue, while downplaying, as exaggerated, reports of a rift between the administration and U.S. allies and in particular South Korea over its handling of the crisis.

They said both Washington and Seoul want to settle the matter diplomatically and that the administration has no objection to, nor any intention to impede, South Korean overtures to the North.

The State Department announced that Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs James Kelly will host senior colleagues from South Korea and Japan in talks here next Monday and Tuesday, in advance of a trip to the region by Mr. Kelly in which, among other things, he is expected to meet South Korean president-elect Roh Moo Hyun.

Under questioning, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also made clear the United States intends to continue is leading role as donor of food aid to North Korea despite the nuclear rift.

He said the United States has long had concerns about the way food contributions have been distributed in North Korea, but will not use humanitarian aid as a political tool.

"The United States has been the largest donor of food aid to the programs that supply food to the North Korean people," he pointed out. "We would expect to continue to supply food for those programs. When we have our new budgets, we will consider what the amounts might be in the coming year. But at the same time, we have made clear that we do intend to continue to provide food, and we don't intend to curtail food for political reasons. We have also made clear that we are concerned about the monitoring of food shipments. Any food we provide, we want to be able to work with the World Food Program and the North Koreans to make sure it gets to the people who deserve it, and who need it."

Mr. Boucher said the United States has gotten no response to questions about food distribution posed to North Korea through diplomatic channels last August. Among other things, U.S. officials have sought assurances that aid is not diverted to the North Korean military.

U.S. food aid to North Korea, channeled through the U.N.'s World Food Program, last year exceeded $100 million.