WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell, seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, said Sunday the United States is "looking for ways to communicate with the North Koreans" but will do nothing to help Pyongyang unless it changes its behavior.
Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, Powell said the United States emphasized the need to peacefully reverse North Korea's decision to restart its weapons program and expel U.N. inspectors monitoring its main nuclear complex.
"We cannot suddenly say, 'Gee we're so scared. Let's have a negotiation because we want to appease your misbehavior.' This kind of action cannot be rewarded," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We are looking for ways to communicate with the North Koreans so some sense can prevail."
Powell seemed to present a subtle change in the administration's tone by holding out the prospect for talks and stressing that military action is not being contemplated.
"There are ways for them to talk to us. We know how to get in touch with them," Powell said in another televised interview.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell was not referring to face-to-face talks, but to diplomatic channels open to North Korea, such as South Korea and the United Nations. President Bush has prohibited negotiations with Kim Jong Il's government while North Korea's nuclear program is active.
Powell, meanwhile, announced that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will go to South Korea next month to talk to U.S. allies -- but not North Korea "at this time."
North Korean officials, for their part, urged the United States to sit down with them to negotiate.
"It is quite self-evident that dialogue is impossible without sitting face to face and a peaceful settlement of the issue would be unthinkable without dialogue," said a government spokesman quoted on KCNA, the North's state-run news agency.
The problem, Powell said, is that North Korea is seeking concessions in exchange for ending its nuclear weapons program.
"What they want is not a discussion," Powell said on ABC's This Week. "They want us to give them something for them to stop the bad behavior. What we can't do is enter into a negotiation right away where we are appeasing them."
Several lawmakers, though, urged the United States to open talks with the North Koreans.
"We ought to be confident enough of our strength -- and we are, after all, the strongest nation in the world -- to go right back to direct negotiations with them," said Senate Armed Services Committee member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., on CBS' Face the Nation. "And I'd put the military option on the table as part of those negotiations."
Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said there eventually will be discussions, albeit they may not be face-to-face talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
"I suspect that there are going to be negotiations," Lugar said on NBC. "They may not be directly between the United States and North Korea. It could very well be through the Chinese, through the South Koreans, through the Japanese, through a combination of multilateral international community."
Democrats added that the Bush administration deserves part of the blame for the crisis. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the president was wrong to have cut off talks with North Korea when he took office.
"We should not be afraid to talk," Levin said on ABC. "We're not going to negotiate giving them anything for doing what they already promised to do, but they should hear from our lips how significant their missteps have been. We're not going to appease them but there's nothing wrong with talking to them."
Powell, however, said North Korea had restarted its nuclear weapons program during the Clinton administration, which the United States learned about last October.
"This program was not started during the Bush administration; it was started during the previous administration," Powell said on ABC. "We inherited this problem."
In all of his appearances, Powell argued against depicting the North Korean issue as a crisis, saying the United States was not gearing up for war and there was plenty of time to find a diplomatic solution.
"We have no hostile intent toward North Korea, and we hope they will come to their senses," he said on ABC. On CBS he added: "Nobody is mobilizing armies, nobody's threatening each other yet."
One possible diplomatic route is through the United Nations; the International Atomic Energy Agency has scheduled a Jan. 6 meeting where the board of governors could refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
In the meantime, he said, North Korea is only hurting itself.
"This is a country that's in desperate condition," Powell said. "What are they going to do with another two or three more nuclear weapons when they're starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that's functioning?"