Secretary of State Colin Powell told senators Thursday the United States is not resigned to the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea and is pursuing a number of quiet diplomatic efforts to get a dialogue going with Pyongyang, but on a multilateral basis.
Mr. Powell's comments at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing reflected irritation over criticism from Democrats this week that the Bush administration - preoccupied with Iraq - has essentially acquiesced to North Korea's recent nuclear moves and is compounding the problem by refusing direct talks with Pyongyang.
Under questioning by Democratic Senator Herb Kohl, Mr. Powell said there is no basis for suggesting that the Bush administration has decided "to live with" a nuclear-armed North Korea and that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula remains a goal of not only the United States but of Japan, China and South Korea, among others.
Mr. Powell said North Korea has tried and succeeded in getting the United States' attention with a series of "provocative" nuclear actions since October.
He said the administration does want to talk to North Korea, but he held firm to its insistence on a multilateral forum since, he said, Pyongyang's violations of nuclear accords including the reopening of its Yongbyon nuclear complex are more than a bilateral issue.
"It is not just a problem between the United States and the DPRK. That's the way they want to see it," he said. "It's a problem with the DPRK and the international community, the DPRK and the International Atomic Energy which has condemned them for breaking the seals and moving in the direction to re-start the reactor. It's a problem between the DPRK and South Korea, for violating their agreement with South Korea. It's a problem between the DPRK and Japan, and China, and Russia and many other nations. And so, therefore, we are looking for a multilateral way to deal with this problem."
Mr. Powell suggested that the effort by the Democratic Clinton administration to try to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions bilaterally had been less than successful.
He said that "as the ink was drying" on the 1994 Agreed Framework that ostensibly froze the North Korean nuclear program, Pyongyang had started work on an alternate weapons effort through enriching uranium.
He said the Bush administration was right to call North Korea to account for the enrichment effort last October, action that appeared to trigger Pyongyang's successive nuclear moves, and he said any criticism for the present state of affairs should be aimed at Pyongyang, not Washington.
"The attention should be directed toward the North Koreans. They're the ones who have people who are starving," Secretary Powell said. "Not one person will be saved by enriched uranium, or by more plutonium coming out. They have blown the opportunity they had to get enormous assistance from Japan by their actions. And so we have a number of diplomatic initiative underway, some of them very, very quietly underway, to see if we cannot get a multilateral dialogue started. And we are looking for a peaceful solution of this problem, and we are committed to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula."
At a news conference Wednesday, top national security advisers from the Clinton administration and leading Senate Democrats urged the Bush White House to agree to direct talks to Pyongyang. Former Defense Secretary William Perry called North Korea "the most dangerous place in the world today.
Mr. Perry said if North Korea started reprocessing spent reactor fuel at the Yongbyon site, it could have five or six nuclear bombs in a few months, and that would "fundamentally" change the situation.
Mr. Powell said reprocessing is a current focus of U.S. concern, and that the administration is "working hard to see that they don't move any further."