White House Downplays N. Korea Issue

Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- In a shift in policy, the Bush administration said Monday that it is in no rush for U.N. Security Council action on North Korea’s nuclear program and played down emerging differences with key allies over the issue.

Three days after signaling a desire for swift council condemnation of the North’s resumption of its nuclear program, officials said they now intend to follow the lead of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And they insisted that the Bush administration, despite its declared desire for a program of pressure known as “tailored containment,” is not pushing allies to apply sanctions.

“The secretary of State has not asked any nation to take economic actions against this desperately poor country,” State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.


The shift suggested that the administration wants to slow the pace of developments on the North Korean arms issue at a time when the government in Pyongyang, the capital, has been trying to urge the United States to make concessions on economic assistance and suspended fuel oil deliveries, analysts said.

North Korea, which suspended its nuclear weapons program in 1994 under international pressure, has in the last two weeks taken steps to restart its nuclear power facilities at Yongbyon -- which could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons -- and has ejected the three IAEA inspectors who had been monitoring activities there.

Two of the inspectors arrived this morning in Beijing, en route to Vienna. The third left Saturday.

Some analysts speculated that the administration’s desire to put off Security Council deliberations may also reflect allies’ resistance to the U.S. effort to cobble together a program of international sanctions.


On Monday, Russia and South Korea warned that taking a hard line against the isolated and impoverished nation could be counterproductive.

But analysts said the latest pronouncements out of Washington make it even less clear how the White House hopes to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arms programs.

“I want to know: What are we intending? It’s just very confusing,” said Joel S. Wit, a top State Department specialist on Korea during the Clinton administration.

In television appearances Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought to reduce tensions by saying that Pyongyang’s recent actions had not created a crisis. He said the United States was not contemplating military action.


L. Gordon Flake of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington said it appeared that U.S. officials are determined “not to do anything to precipitate a crisis. So if they can use the cover of the IAEA process to give themselves more time, that’s what they’ll do.”

IAEA officials have said that at a board meeting Monday, they plan to discuss North Korea’s violations of its promise not to pursue nuclear arms. But diplomatic sources at the U.N. said Monday that the agency hopes to resolve the issue without taking it to the Security Council, which agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said last week would be the next step.

China, one of North Korea’s strongest allies, is a veto-wielding council member and has signaled that it prefers to apply diplomatic pressure discreetly. In the Security Council spotlight, Chinese diplomats might feel compelled to publicly defend North Korea, diplomats say.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who had been loath to criticize the United States in public, on Monday rejected the Bush administration’s strategy of “tailored containment.”


“Pressure and isolation have never been successful with communist countries. Cuba is one example,” Kim told his Cabinet, according to the presidential Blue House.

Kim said that although his country would firmly oppose North Korea’s nuclear program, it would also seek peace.

South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun told reporters in Seoul this morning that he expected the United States to closely coordinate its position.

“This is not a matter of life-and-death policy for the United States, but it could be for us,” Roh said.


Russia, meanwhile, warned North Korea not to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, an agreement designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s official news agency hinted over the weekend that the country might take that step.

In his strongest condemnation yet of North Korea’s actions, Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said Pyongyang’s decision to expel the inspectors and prepare to resume unmonitored work at its nuclear energy complex “cannot help but provoke regret.” But he also urged Washington to tone down its “aggressive rhetoric.”

In Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending the holiday, officials insisted that there is no split between allies.

Scott McClellan, the deputy White House press secretary, said: “The international community is unified and is in agreement that North Korea’s actions are a challenge to all responsible nations. And it has made clear that North Korea’s relations with the outside world hinge on the elimination of its nuclear weapons program.”


Analysts said another reason the administration may prefer to avoid U.N. deliberations on North Korea is the approach of Security Council discussions on Iraq that could help determine whether the U.S. goes to war.


Richter reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writers Barbara Demick in Seoul and James Gerstenzang in Crawford contributed to this report.