Several senior U.S. senators have called on the Bush Administration to hold direct talks with North Korea.  Concern is growing in Congress that the reclusive communist nation may be preparing to test fire a missile capable of reaching American soil.

Although six-party talks - including the United States, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea - have been stalled since November, the Bush Administration has remained steadfast in its belief that such talks are the best way to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

But calls are growing in Washington for the White House to change its policy and directly engage Pyongyang.

Speaking on a nationally-televised news program Sunday, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close ally of President Bush, said direct talks may be the best way to bring a diplomatic solution to the missile test situation.

"It would be advisable to bring about a much greater intensification of diplomacy, and this may involve direct talks between the United States and North Korea," Lugar says.

Other legislators on the committee, from both political parties, agreed.

Last month, North Korean officials invited Christopher Hill, the head of the U.S. delegation to the multilateral talks, to Pyongyang.  The overture was rebuffed by the White House.

Last week, the Senate approved an amendment to a defense authorization bill that would require President Bush to appoint a senior presidential envoy as a coordinator of American policy on North Korea.

Intelligence reports suggest that North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile believed capable of reaching parts of the United States.   

North Korea announced last year it had nuclear weapons.

The United States has urged Pyongyang to halt any plans to test the missile, although the North has insisted it has the right to do so, if it chooses.

Some independent foreign policy experts have suggested conducting a preventive strike against a North Korean launch pad.  Senator Lugar advised the White House against such a move.  But Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said Sunday the option should be on the table.

"We can't take anything off the table, and of course, there are always sanctions short of military force," Boxer says.

News emerged Monday of other means the United States may be able to use to guard against any threat a North Korean missile may impose.  Japan's "Yomiuri Shimbun" says the United States plans to deploy three or four surface-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability missiles in southern Japan by the end of the year.

North Korea's last long-range missile test was in 1998. The missile crossed Japanese territory before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.