Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry says President Bush's reluctance to hold talks with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program has made the world less safe.

In their presidential debate Friday, Mr. Kerry said North Korea may now have up to seven atomic bombs, and he said Pyongyang was able to build the weapons because Mr. Bush halted bilateral talks in 2001.

Mr. Bush said initiating talks directly with North Korea would undermine the multi-lateral talks currently under way. The Republican incumbent called the talks initiated by former President Bill Clinton a dangerous and ineffective policy.

In December 2002, North Korea repudiated a 1994 agreement that shut down its nuclear reactors and allowed U.N. weapons inspections. Intelligence analysts now say Pyongyang has reprocessed enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs.