The United States and a number of other governments Friday condemned North Korea's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but President Bush remains committed to finding "a peaceful, multilateral solution" to the worsening standoff, his spokesman said.
With tensions rising, two North Korean diplomats who had flown to Santa Fe on Thursday spent seven hours in private meetings with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served in the Clinton administration as U.N. ambassador. The envoys unexpectedly announced that they would stay Friday night for a working dinner and continue their talks today.
Richardson described the talks as "frank and candid" and added, "My hope is at the end of the meetings there will be positive results, but I don't want to speculate there will be any breakthroughs." He did not provide details.
In public, however, North Korea used increasingly shrill rhetoric, warning in a fiery editorial in the official Korean Central News Agency that a new Korean war "will finally lead to a Third World War." Its U.N. ambassador gave a rare news conference Friday to declare that any sanctions imposed by the Security Council would be considered tantamount to a declaration of war.
But Ambassador Pak Gil Yon said that the country would not "at the moment" use its nuclear facilities for any purpose other than generating electricity and that the regime in Pyongyang might allow the United States to verify that it is not making nuclear weapons if Washington abandons what he called its hostile policies.
U.S. and international officials, as well as private nuclear policy experts, said the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is the cornerstone of the global security structure that allows nations to have civilian nuclear power programs without creating the fear among their neighbors that they are secretly producing nuclear weapons.
It would be especially destabilizing, they said, for North Korea to violate the treaty and then, when caught, to quit the international nonproliferation regime.
At the same time, the Bush administration faces a stiff challenge in finding ways to force Pyongyang back into compliance with the treaty or to punish it for dropping out.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would not say how long the president will give his strategy of bringing international diplomatic pressure to bear on North Korea to produce results before bringing the problem before the Security Council.
"North Korea has decided that it wants to stick its finger in the eye of the world," Fleischer said, insisting that the nation must be made to see that its nuclear program is not a matter of conflict with the United States but the object of international opprobrium.
"North Korea has thumbed its nose at the international community," Powell said, adding, "The Nonproliferation Treaty is an important international agreement, and this kind of disrespect ... cannot go undealt with."
Powell called the standoff "a serious situation" but declined to describe it as a crisis.
"We're not going to be intimidated," he said. "We're not going to be put into a panic situation."
Fleischer said that North Korea has in the past tried to "gin up a crisis atmosphere" so as to extract concessions from the rest of the world. The U.S. has decided that the best response is steady diplomacy, he said.
Britain, France, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea all denounced North Korea's decision Friday, or called on the regime to reverse course. Australia, one of the few Western countries that has diplomatic relations with North Korea, said it would send a high-level delegation Tuesday to Pyongyang in an effort to defuse the crisis.
In Seoul, South Korean officials expressed disappointment that the North Koreans hadn't allowed enough time for any of the various diplomatic initiatives underway to work. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, meeting in Seoul with South Korean officials, suggested that the issue would probably need to go before the Security Council.
Bush had a 17-minute telephone conversation Friday with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who reiterated China's commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, the spokesman said. Powell has spoken with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Japan and the European Union and has had three conversations with Richardson about the unorthodox visit by the North Koreans to the newly elected governor.
Richardson, acting in an unofficial capacity, held two hours of talks with Deputy Permanent U.N. Representative Han Song Ryol and his assistant, Mun Jong Chol, on Thursday night at the governor's mansion in Santa Fe. Five hours of talks followed on Friday.
Administration officials said they expect that Richardson, who is not acting as an official envoy, would merely repeat to the North Koreans in private the publicly stated positions of the U.S. government and report the North Koreans' views to Washington.
"I hope my talks will be positive, but it remains to be seen," Richardson said. "Secretary Powell conveyed to me some strong views, and I have conveyed them to the North Koreans."
Asked if he was acting as a "mouthpiece" for the Bush administration, the veteran Democrat shot back, "I'm not a mouthpiece, I'm a governor. I'm trying to bring people together."
In Washington, New York and Vienna, the political climate was more tense. The IAEA, based in Vienna, has estimated that North Korea could manufacture four to six nuclear bombs within six months now that it has expelled IAEA cameras and monitors from its nuclear facilities.
IAEA staff members were conferring with member countries Friday to discuss convening an emergency meeting, probably next week, that could vote to send the issue of North Korea's noncompliance to the Security Council for discussion.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he regretted North Korea's decision and strongly urged reconsideration, a spokesman said. France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, who is serving as the current president of the Security Council, said he received a letter Friday from North Korea formally stating it was withdrawing from the nonproliferation pact. He said consultations among council members about the letter would take place next week.
Speaking a moment later in his role as the representative of France, De La Sabliere said North Korea's decision was a "major concern" that would have to be addressed by the council.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, in Washington for meetings with Powell and others, took a sharp tone in condemning North Korea's "policy of defiance."
The nonproliferation treaty "is the cornerstone of the international community's efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons," ElBaradei said. "A challenge to the integrity of that treaty may constitute a threat to international peace and security."
But the Security Council's options for dealing with North Korea are essentially the same as for Iraq: reprimands, sanctions or military action. Reprimands are likely to be ineffective against a regime that views the United Nations as a tool of what it sees as the hegemonic United States.
But North Korea has yet to extricate itself from the pact's grasp. The treaty states that parties may withdraw after giving 90 days' notice if "extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this treaty have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country."
A senior State Department official said no such "extraordinary events" that would justify North Korean withdrawal have taken place.
Pak announced that his nation's withdrawal would become effective today, because North Korea had announced during its last nuclear standoff with the West in 1993 that it was quitting the treaty, then waited 89 days before signing the so-called Agreed Framework in 1994, the international deal that ended that crisis.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the North Koreans still have to give 90 days' notice, a position shared by the IAEA, and one that allows more time for negotiation.
Efron reported from Washington and Hart from Santa Fe. Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna, John J. Goldman at the United Nations and Barbara Demick in Seoul also contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
North Korea's Recent Moves
North Korea took several other nuclear-related steps before announcing Friday that it was pulling out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, freeing it from obligations with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency:
Oct. 4, 2002
North Korea admits existence of nuclear program in violation of 1994 agreement, after U.S. officials produce evidence.
White House discloses that North Korea admits it has a secret nuclear weapons program.
IAEA backs a resolution urging North Korea to implement and respect nuclear safeguard agreement.
IAEA asks North Korea to show restraint in deciding to lift a freeze on nuclear facilities.
IAEA reports North Korea has removed seals and disabled surveillance equipment at a nuclear complex.
IAEA accuses North Korea of "nuclear brinkmanship" by restarting a frozen nuclear complex.
North Korea tells IAEA that inspectors should leave immediately.
Jan. 6, 2003
IAEA decides not to report North Korea's defiance to the U.N. Security Council and gives Pyongyang another chance to stop nuclear program and readmit inspectors.
North Korea announces its withdrawal from the global nuclear arms control treaty.
SOURCES: Assocated Press, International Atomic Energy Agency
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
What is its purpose? - To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology.
When was it ratified? - 1970
Who are the participants? - 188 signees, including five nuclear-armed nations: the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.
Who does not participate?- India, Pakistan and Israel, among others.
What are the key articles?
* Nuclear-armed states agree not to transfer nuclear weapons or help nonnuclear countries obtain them.
* Nonnuclear states agree not to develop or obtain nuclear weapons.
* Any state wanting to withdraw must give 90 days' notice.