WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is prepared to dramatically intensify economic pressure on North Korea through that nation's Asian neighbors and the United Nations unless Pyongyang stops its nuclear weapons programs, U.S. officials said Saturday.
The strategies, emerging from several days of escalating tensions, are aimed at confronting North Korea with the prospect of economic collapse if it continues to seek new atomic weapons on top of the one or two Kim Jong Il's government is believed already to have.
Neither that ultimate goal nor the tactics themselves are dramatically different from the administration's approach since the fall. But administration officials, eager to show they're responding to North Korea's defiance, are recasting their policies with an emphasis on the economic impact of U.S. actions.
If North Korea does not change course, the administration could find it necessary to encourage Pyongyang's neighbors to reduce economic ties with Pyongyang, officials said on condition of anonymity. Thus far reluctant to take such steps, South Korea, Japan and China may be willing to do so if North Korea pursues nuclear weapons, officials said.
They said the administration is even considering asking South Korea to break all ties to the North if the situation does not improve.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is expected to visit the region next month to sound out the countries involved and encourage a united front.
Lawmakers urged the Bush administration Saturday to form a united front with North Korea's neighbors to pressure Pyongyang.
The administration is also quietly encouraging the U.N. monitoring agency to take the crisis to the Security Council, where economic sanctions could be threatened.
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 U.N. to pursue a tough line against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Anyway, the officials said, some of the toughest talk on the situation already is coming from South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun.
The U.S. policy reassessment came after North Korea announced in a flash of defiance Friday that it would expel U.N. nuclear inspectors and reopen a laboratory for the production of plutonium.
White House officials are trying to paint the dispute as North Korea versus the world, rather than Washington versus Pyongyang. Toward that end, the administration does not plan to respond to every development, declining comment Saturday when the U.N. agency said it would leave North Korea on Tuesday.
As part of President Bush's policy, dubbed "tailored containment," the U.S. military might intercept missile shipments to deprive North Korea of money from weapons sales. The U.S. intercepted a shipment bound for Yemen recently, but let it continue after Yemen assured the administration it was a legitimate sale.
Rep. Jim Leach, chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, said in an interview Saturday that the United States needed to intensify talks with nations surrounding North Korea in formulating a response to Pyongyang's announcement Friday.
"Part of the whole North Korean equation is keeping policy consistent with China, Russia and Mongolia, as well as with South Korea and Japan," said Leach, R-Iowa. "Any policy toward North Korea could have tremendous implications for South Korea."
Leach's comments were echoed by another Republican on the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. King said North Korea is surrounded by strong nations who could help isolate the regime.
"Economic and diplomatic pressure can work," King said. "It's up to us diplomatically to put pressure on (North Korea) to convince them that they have more at stake than we do."
Some Democrats have said the Bush administration deserves some blame for the current crisis. When he took office, Bush ordered a reassessment of Clinton administration policy that had traded energy supplies for a freeze on North Korea's nuclear program.
Others including Leach say that despite the review, the policy remains unchanged.
King said he wouldn't rule out attacking North Korea if diplomacy should fail. "That strengthens our diplomatic hand, that we always retain the possibility of military action," King said.
The White House has said military action is not being contemplated.
Bush has refused to allow U.S.-North Korean talks until the regime stops its nuclear weapons programs, saying any concessions would be tantamount to paying blackmail.
AP White House Correspondent Ron Fournier contributed to this story from Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing.
On the Net: House International Relations Committee: http://www.house.gov/international(underscore)relations
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APTV 12-28-02 1632EST