Democrats in Congress roared their disapproval of President Bush's North Korea policy Wednesday, warning that North Korea poses a more imminent threat to U.S. interests than does Iraq and urging the president to "get off the sidelines" to avert a foreign policy disaster.
Administration officials insisted that they were continuing to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis and had in no way accepted the inevitability of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
In Seoul, the new South Korean national security advisor confirmed reports that he met secretly last month in Beijing with a North Korean official to discuss ways to resolve the crisis over the isolated communist state's nuclear program. South Korea has been urging the Bush administration to open direct talks with North Korea.
"Nobody is speaking about war at this time," Ra Jong Yil, the national security advisor to the week-old government of Roh Moo Hyun, said in an interview Wednesday. "There is still cause for optimism. The fact is that all the parties, North Korea included, think it is desirable to have a peaceful solution."
However, war jitters shook Capitol Hill as Air Force bombers began heading toward the Pacific island of Guam. The deployment was ordered before North Korea intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan last weekend, an incident that experts said could easily have triggered a military exchange. Administration officials described the deployment as "not aggressive" but rather "a prudent measure to bolster our defensive posture as a deterrent."
Democrats who have grudgingly gone along with the administration on Iraq and on its campaign against terrorism seemed to have found in North Korea a foreign policy issue on which to fight the president.
The U.S. "should be reluctant to add fuel to the fire at the moment" and should work with the South Koreans and Japan before deploying weapons, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry said North Korea is "the most dangerous spot in the world today."
Top Democratic lawmakers and a chorus of foreign policy experts urged the administration to rethink its refusal to hold direct talks with North Korea.
"Apparently, the Bush White House would rather live with North Korea as a nuclear weapons state than risk 'moral contamination' by trying to deal directly with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il," said Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. "The notion that we should not reward their bad behavior by talking to them is patently absurd. Diplomacy is all about dealing with bad behavior."
North Korea appears to want to stall for time so it can build bombs while it tries to divide Washington and Seoul and prevent them from agreeing on a coherent strategy, said Robert Madsen of Stanford University's Asia Pacific Research Center. "We have repeatedly urged the administration to get off the sidelines and face up to the developing crisis," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. "Unfortunately ... the White House continues to sit back and watch, playing down the threat, and apparently playing for time. But time is not on our side."
North Korea "presents a far more imminent threat than Iraq to the security of the United States," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).
A senior State Department official rejected the criticism.
"Those who suggest we are not paying enough attention to it are just wrong," the official said, adding that some of the Democrats who have criticized the administration for being willing to go it alone on Iraq were bashing the president for his efforts to forge a multilateral coalition with Asian allies to confront North Korea.
Republicans were largely silent. However, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) suggested Tuesday that the U.S. should "have at least a conversation [with the North Koreans] when we find out what they want."
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer denied reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post quoting Capitol Hill sources as saying that the administration had concluded it probably could not prevent North Korea from reprocessing its spent plutonium and was now focused on managing the consequences, including preventing the sale of weapons-grade nuclear material to rogue states or terrorists.
"The position of the United States, along with our allies in the region, is just the opposite: that it is important to make certain that there is a denuclearized peninsula," Fleischer said. "And that's why we're working so hard on this and why we have called directly and publicly for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs."
Fleischer acknowledged that North Korea's recent actions were serious, but he said the situation is not a crisis. He said Bush continues to view it as a diplomatic matter to be solved through regional cooperation.
"The president said that all options are on the table, but we will continue to pursue the diplomacy of this," he told reporters. "I think North Korea would like nothing more than to make this a crisis, because the more they can make this a crisis, the more they think they will get things in return for defusing the crisis that they themselves have spun up."
The State Department official said the administration welcomes talks between North and South Korea and believes that such exchanges might help convey the position of the international community to the North Koreans.
The administration has pledged to act together with South Korea and Japan. Ra, the South Korean official, emphasized that any major South Korean initiative would be closely coordinated with Washington. He said such an initiative would not take place until after Roh travels to the United States to meet with Bush later this year. Both nations are eager to avoid a repeat of former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's visit to Washington to meet the newly inaugurated Bush, during which Kim was perceived to have been snubbed. But the revelation of secret North-South talks, as well as remarks by Roh in a Times of London interview published Wednesday in which the new South Korean president urged the U.S. "not to go too far," indicated a continuing gap between the views of the two allies.
Efron reported from Washington and Demick from Seoul. Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.