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Bush focuses on diplomacy with North Korea

WASHINGTON—President Bush stressed diplomacy over military action in the standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program Wednesday as North Korea threatened more weapons tests.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world faces "an extremely difficult situation" and called for direct talks between the United States and North Korea. Bush rejected one-on-one negotiations, but said he remains committed to diplomacy. He urged the U.N. to impose stiff economic sanctions on North Korea.

North Korea said it would consider international economic sanctions a declaration of war.

"The more they push us, the stronger our response will be," an unidentified North Korean official told the South Korean news service, Yonhap. Other North Korean officials raised the possibility of additional weapons tests.

U.S. intelligence officials were still trying to confirm North Korea's claim Sunday that it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon.

At a White House news conference, Bush reiterated previous statements that he would not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. At the same time, he downplayed the possibility of military action.

"We have no intention of attacking North Korea," he said. U.S. officials are pushing the U.N. Security Council to approve a package of sanctions intended to throttle North Korea's ability to buy or sell high-tech weaponry. The United States is also seeking authority to stop and search North Korean vessels.

"I suspect the council will come together and take a firm action against North Korea," Annan told reporters at the U.N. "It's important for the whole world."

Bush said his goal is to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that abandoning nuclear weapons is the only way to end North Korea's international ostracism and revive its failed economy.

"We'll give diplomacy a chance to work," Bush told reporters. "There's a way forward for the North Korean leader to choose."

Japan, rattled by unconfirmed rumors of more North Korean weapons tests, announced a six-month ban on imports from North Korea. The Japanese sanctions also prohibit North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports and effectively ban visits by North Korean citizens.

Military analysts said the United States has few good military options if diplomacy fails.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry said the Pentagon prepared a plan to take out North Korea's main nuclear research facility during the Clinton administration, but decided not to use it.

In a teleconference call with reporters Wednesday, Perry said an air attack might have been effective at the time because all of North Korea's plutonium was stored at the facility in Yongbyon.

"I had a detailed plan in front of me. I could have snapped my fingers and done it in a minute. It would have been effective. The point is that I never recommended to the president doing it," he said. "The military option was truly the option of last resort."

Perry said North Korea's Stalinist regime has almost certainly scattered its stocks of plutonium bomb fuel to secret locations around the country by now, ruling out the use of air strikes to destroy them. The teleconference was arranged by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy institute.

Bush, who also might have had a chance to order an effective air strike early in his administration, said he considered "all options" but chose diplomacy.

Perry and Joseph Cirincione, an expert with the Center for American Progress, said they were deeply concerned that North Korea's claim to have successfully tested a nuclear weapon could trigger a new nuclear arms race in Asia.

Cirincione pointed out that Taiwan and South Korea halted nuclear weapons programs under U.S. pressure in the 1970s and Japan has a stockpile of 23 tons of plutonium that could be used as bomb fuel.

"People are afraid of the North Korean threat," he said. "All of them are at least having internal discussions about their nuclear options."

If North Korea is not sufficiently penalized, hardliners in India could begin calling for a resumption of nuclear weapons tests, prompting similar calls in rival Pakistan, and Iran could also accelerate its suspected weapons program, he said.

The apparent North Korean test "could be the tipping point that so many of us have warned about for so many years," said Cirincione.

In the context of a hotly contested congressional election campaign, North Korea's claim that it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon sparked some partisan finger pointing.

Democrats said the development showed the fallacy of Bush's approach of relying on North Korea's neighbors to apply pressure on the reclusive regime rather than engaging in direct talks. They also criticized the president for listing North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as an "axis of evil"—a designation that gave North Korea another reason to claim that it needs nuclear weapons to prevent a U.S. attack.

Bush and his defenders said North Korea's failure to live up previous agreements with the Clinton administration indicated that it was time for another approach.

"It didn't work in the past, is my point. The strategy didn't work," Bush said. But Bush's approach of engaging Pyongyang in negotiations that also include South Korea, Japan, Russia and China hasn't had much success either. The so-called six-party talks broke down after a fifth round in November 20005, with the United States and North Korea blaming the other.

"Diplomacy is a difficult process because everybody's interests aren't exactly the same," Bush said. "It takes a while to get people on the same page, and it takes a while for people to get used to the consequences."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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