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Powell:  N. Korea's Neighbors Should Persuade it to End Nuclear Program

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called for North Korea's neighbors to help persuade it to end its nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, critics of the Bush administration say the United States should begin talks with Pyongyang as soon as possible.

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Secretary Powell confirmed that the Defense Department has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible deployment in the Pacific. Although he would not give details on the decision, the move is widely seen as a signal to Pyongyang not to attack South Korea in case the United States has to devote much of its military to a war against Iraq.

Mr. Powell pointedly refused to refer to the current tensions as a "crisis" and said diplomacy is the best way to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. He also made it clear that he expects North Korea's neighbors, in particular China, to weigh in on the issue and use their influence on Pyongyang to help settle the matter.

"We do not view this as a crisis situation, we view this as a very serious problem," he said. "We do not want to see a nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, nor does China, nor does Japan, Russia or any of the other neighbors. That is why we believe it is important for us to deal with this north Korean problem in a multilateral setting. China has said it does not want a nuclearized Korean peninsula. Well China, then, I think, should use its influence to bring that about."

But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, appearing on the same program, reacted to reports that North Korea may be able to produce six to eight nuclear weapons by May or June. Mrs. Albright, the only American secretary of state to pay an official visit to North Korea, said the Bush administration was wrong to suspend bilateral talks on Pyongyang's nuclear missiles in 2001.

She suggested the administration's stance may be partly responsible for the North's recent announcement that it would restart its nuclear weapons program.

"I do think that the better way to deal with this is to have direct talks with them, maybe under the umbrella of some multilateral talks, but we clearly have to deal with it," she said. "And here, I do have a problem with the Bush administration. They, in fact, wasted two years, because they did not want to pick up the cards that we left on the table."

Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the Bush administration is willing to talk with North Korea if other interested parties are included.