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Senate Democrats Step Up Criticism on Bush N. Korea Policy - 2003-02-07

U.S. Senate Democrats are stepping up their criticism of Bush administration policy toward North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell responded to lawmakers' concerns Thursday during an appearance on Capitol Hill.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for many of his fellow Democrats when he took to the Senate floor on Thursday.

"I am concerned that our understandable focus on Iraq at this moment is taking focus off what I believe to be an equally if not more immediate threat to U.S. interests, and those of our allies, and I speak of [North] Korea," he said.

Senator Biden called on the Bush administration to immediately begin direct talks with North Korea instead of conditioning them on approval of U.S. allies in the region.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle agreed, saying it was the best way to solve the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

"The president should stop down-playing this threat and start paying more attention to it, and immediately engage the North Koreans in direct talks," he said.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell defended administration policy at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

"While I am sensitive to the charge that you have got to start talking right away or else they will do something that will be more troubling and destabilizing, I think it is still essential that we do it in a way that keeps all our allies together, and let our allies, our friends and our partners in the region know that they have a responsibility as well to persuade the North Koreans that they have to behave correctly," he said.

Committee member Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts also criticized the administration for taking all options off the table in dealing with North Korea including the use of force and applying economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Secretary Powell rejected the criticism. He said the United States is retaining all options even though Washington has sought to assure Pyongyang it does not plan to attack. But he added he still believes a diplomatic solution is possible.