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Democrats Repeat Calls for Bush to Hold Direct Talks With Pyongyang

The Republican-led U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on North Korea's nuclear ambitions Thursday, as Senate Democrats step up their criticism of Bush administration policy toward that country.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden, offered a harsh assessment of the Bush administration's approach to North Korea at a Wednesday news conference. "There is no policy. I would not call it benign neglect, I would call it maligned neglect," he said.

Senator Biden joined other leading Senate Democrats in calling for the Bush administration to follow the advice of U.S. allies in the region and begin direct talks with North Korea.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said, "the administration's unwillingness to engage in diplomacy with North Korea is exacerbating an already precarious situation."

"It has come to the point that whether by accident or by design, the situation in North Korea could rapidly disintegrate from a war of words and gestures into a war of bullets and bombs, perhaps even nuclear bombs," he said.

Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, came to the defense of the administration. "It definitely has been pursuing a policy of diplomacy to resolve this dispute," he said.

The comments were echoed earlier Wednesday by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who underscored the administration favors a multilateral approach with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

But Republicans are divided on the issue of direct talks with Pyongyang. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, favors such talks. His committee will examine what it calls 'a framework' for dialogue with North Korea at its hearing Thursday.

In the latest provocation by Pyongyang, North Korean jets intercepted a U.S. surveillance plane over international waters Sunday.

Tensions began to escalate last October, when the Bush administration said North Korea admitted to having a program to enrich uranium in violation of international agreements.

The United States is deploying a force of 24 long-range bombers to the Pacific island of Guam in connection with the stand-off with North Korea.

But the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Service Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, said the United States should work with allies before building up forces in the region.