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Bush Touts Diplomatic Solution to North Korean Nuke Standoff

Rebuking North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, President Bush said Thursday he has "no heart for somebody who starves his folks."

Still, Bush said anew he was confident a peaceful conclusion can be reached in the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula.

Fielding questions about tense U.S. relations with Iraq as well as North Korea, Bush voiced skepticism that Saddam Hussein would voluntarily give up any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

"He's got to understand his day of reckoning is coming," Bush told reporters invited to tour his ranch on a cold and windy morning.

The president repeatedly insisted he is not on an inevitable path to war with the Iraqi leader-- and cut off a reporter trying to explore the possibility.

"I'm hopeful we won't have to go to war. And let's leave it at that," Bush said. "Hopefully he realizes we're serious and hopefully he disarms peacefully."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said exile "certainly is an option" Saddam ought to consider.

"The certainty of coalition forces prevailing if it comes to military action should make him consider any other options he might have," Boucher said.

Asked if the United States was talking to Arab or other countries about exile arrangements, Boucher said he was not aware of any active efforts to promote Saddam's departure from Baghdad.

Bush spoke after taking a small group of reporters on a fast-paced 90-minute spin around 4 miles of trails on his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch. Going up and down hills, scrambling into rocky canyons and tramping through mud, Bush proudly showed off the progress he has made in clearing thick, suffocating cedar growth from around hardwood trees and opening up the prettier corners of his property.

The project, which he happily acknowledges probably will never be finished, is as much a personal salve as a pledge to his wife. First lady Laura Bush worried at first that their many overgrown acres would remain inaccessible to the Bush family and their visitors.

"I want to show you this overhang -- it's a little wet, but worth it," he told his guests as he bounded toward a high overlook in the woods that afforded a view of Rainey Creek below and cliffs beyond.

Standing outside his single-story ranch home, Bush then took questions on topics that include North Korea and Iraq.

In early December, North Korea alarmed the world by deciding to reactivate its plutonium-based nuclear program. It since has removed monitoring seals and cameras from its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, expelled U.N. inspectors who visually monitored those facilities and signaled that it may withdraw from a global nuclear arms control treaty.

Officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan plan to coordinate policy on North Korea in meetings Monday and Tuesday in Washington. Afterward, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will go to South Korea and other countries in the region for further talks, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Boucher said the United States would not cut off or lessen food aid to North Korea for "political reasons," though he said the amount was still being determined. The administration will insist on a way "to make sure it gets to the people who deserve it and who need it," Boucher said.

Reinforcing the position that the situations in North Korea and Iraq require different approaches, Bush said the standoff with North Korea was "a diplomatic issue, not a military issue."

"I believe the situation with North Korea will be resolved peacefully," Bush said.

At the same time, he showed no patience for Kim's leadership. The North Korea government needs outside help -- with the United States the largest donor -- to feed its 22 million people.

"One of the reasons why the people are starving is because the leader of North Korea hasn't seen to it that their economy is strong or that they be fed," Bush said.

As evidence of progress toward a diplomatic solution, Bush noted the decision to suspend fuel oil deliveries to North Korea was reached jointly by the United States, the European Union and South Korea and Japan. He also said there is wide agreement that a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable -- and pointed to a joint statement with Chinese President Jiang Zemin that was issued from the Texas ranch in October.

"We're working with friends and allies in the region to explain clearly to North Korea it's not in their nation's interest to develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.

Asked about the reluctance of some allies to help put diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, Bush suggested more was being done than has been evident -- without saying what.

"They may be putting pressure on and you just don't know about it," he said. "But I know they're not reluctant when it comes to the idea of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula."

Boucher also dismissed suggestions of differences between the United States and South Korea on how to deal with the North.