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, N.M., 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 this weekend. 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 remained defiant. Its U.N. ambassador gave a rare news conference Friday to declare that a "vicious hostile policy" and nuclear threats by the United States had compelled the North to abandon the nonproliferation pact.
But Ambassador Pak Gil Yon said the country would not "at the moment" use its nuclear facilities for any purpose other than generating electricity and that the regime in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, 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 secretly are producing nuclear weapons.
It would be especially destabilizing, they said, for North Korea to violate the treaty and then, when caught, to quit the nonproliferation treaty.
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.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer and U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would not say how long the president would give for 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 North Korea must be made to see that its nuclear program is not matter of conflict with the United States but the object of international opprobrium.
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. Canada and Australia, which have diplomatic relations with North Korea, indicated a willingness to send delegations to Pyongyang if necessary.
"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 characterize it as a crisis.
Fleischer noted that North Korea has in the past often tried to "gin up a crisis atmosphere" to extract concessions from the world. The United States has decided the best response is steady diplomacy, he said.
Bush had a 17-minute telephone conversation Friday with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who reiterated China's commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, Fleischer 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, and five more hours of talks 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, D.C.
In Washington, New York and Vienna, the political climate was 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 this week, which could vote to send 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 this week.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, in Washington, D.C., for meetings with Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others, took a sharp tone in condemning North Korea's "policy of defiance."
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.
Pak repeated Friday that North Korea would treat economic sanctions as an act of war.
And military action, even if approved by the council, would be highly problematic because about 40% of South Korea's population and 60% of its economic infrastructure lie within easy range of North Korea's artillery.