WASHINGTON – Frustrated by North Korea's relentless march toward building new nuclear weapons, top Bush administration officials are pondering ways — short of force — to compel Pyongyang to change course.
One would be to drive home the point to South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and other countries that North Korea is at odds with the world, not just the United States.
That message is likely to be reinforced in a probable trip to the region by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who already had been considering a visit to Seoul for talks with the new South Korean government.
The administration also is quietly encouraging the U.N. monitoring agency, whose inspectors were expelled by North Korea, to take the crisis to the Security Council. U.S. officials said they were not campaigning for the move overtly because they fear backlash from allies already dubious about Bush's use of the United Nations to pursue a tough line against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Administration rhetoric is taking an increasingly higher pitch but has failed to deter North Korea from steps that U.S. analysts fear could result within months in production of new atomic weapons on top of the one or two weapons Pyongyang is believed to already have.
While President Bush settled into a weeklong stay at his Texas ranch, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top administration officials met Friday at the White House to consider how to fine-tune a U.S. policy that is mostly rhetorical.
Meanwhile, North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and announced in a flash of renewed defiance that it would reopen a laboratory for the production of plutonium.
Bush has ordered a no-compromise policy that would require North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program before the administration would consider talking with Pyongyang or improving a shattered relationship.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush was vacationing, "North Korea's actions are a challenge to all responsible nations."
"We call on the regime in North Korea to reverse its current course," he said.
There was no indication of that Saturday. The IAEA inspectors said even after the order to leave had come down that they were staying, but in Vienna, Austria, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Saturday the three inspectors would leave by Tuesday.
Administration officials speaking privately had said Friday they were pleased that the U.N. inspectors were not leaving, and they were hoping for similar resolve from Asian leaders.
At the same time, the White House was careful to say again that military action against North Korea was not being contemplated.
"We seek a peaceful resolution," spokesman McClellan said. "I think for now we need to let the discussions happen with our friends and allies about the next steps that we take."
Congressional doubts that the administration was dealing creatively with the nuclear threat, exacerbated by the expulsion of the inspectors, was voiced by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who plans to challenge Bush for re-election.
"What happened in North Korea today is predictable and totally anticipated based on this administration's complete avoidance of a responsible approach to North Korea in over a year and a half," Kerry said.
On taking office, Bush ordered a reassessment of the Clinton administration's policy that had produced a freeze on a North Korean nuclear program in exchange for energy supplies.
In July 2001, Bush offered Pyongyang a comprehensive dialogue. But last summer, the administration concluded North Korea had started a uranium enrichment program.
In October, Kelly went to Pyongyang with the message that North Korea must suspend its nuclear program before serious talks could start.
The message was ignored, but North Korea acknowledged that it had a program.
Normally, economic pressures are available to an administration seeking leverage against another country. But trade with North Korea is minuscule, and the reclusive regime in Pyongyang has been largely impervious to pressure so long as the United States refuses to sign a nonaggression pact.
Powell said this month that signing such a pact would reward North Korea for bad behavior. He held out the prospect of better relations if the nuclear program were halted.