CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush suggested again on Thursday that the conflict with Iraq is more serious than North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but that plans to isolate North Korea will press the dictatorship to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Bush accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of playing games over the issue of interviewing Iraqi scientists by keeping "a minder in the room" during interviews. The scientists themselves request them, according to weapons inspectors, but the Bush administration has said that scientists are protecting themselves and won't talk openly with Iraqi officials in the room.
Bush said Saddam's "day of reckoning" is coming.
"You know, he is a man who likes to play games and charades. The question is, will Saddam Hussein disarm? The world has asked him to disarm from weapons of mass destruction. The first indication isn't very positive that he will voluntarily disarm," he said.
"For 11 long years, the world has dealt with him. And now he's got to understand this day of reckoning is coming, and therefore, he must disarm voluntarily. I hope he does," Bush said.
Meanwhile, the president avoided answering a reporter's question about whether the United States can afford a war with Iraq as it struggles to grow its economy.
"First of all I'm hopeful we won't have to go to war. Let's leave it at that," Bush said after taking reporters on a brisk four-mile walk around his 1,600-acre ranch that left some struggling to keep up.
"Until Saddam Hussein makes up his mind to disarm. It's his choice to make. So you need to ask him that question, not me," he added.
Aides have said Bush doesn't consider the economy an issue when he considers the prospect of war with Iraq. He said that despite a recession, terrorist attack and corporate scandal, the economy is still growing and investors should feel confident about the new year.
"That's very positive. I recognize there are some uncertainties ... and yet the economy still grows," he said.
At the same time, Bush has strongly suggested that war will happen.
On North Korea, Bush said that China and South Korea may be doing more to pressure their neighbor, even though South Korea's own incoming and outgoing presidents have expressed skepticism that pressure will work.
"Well, they may be putting pressure on and you just don't know about it. But I know they're not reluctant when it comes to the idea of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. And we are in constant contact with the Japanese and the South Koreans and the Chinese and the Russians. As I said, the decision to cut off fuel oil was a joint decision, it was not a U.S. decision," Bush said.
In early December, North Korea announced to the world that it was planning 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.
Bush said he hoped that a peaceful solution was forthcoming, though he sharply rebuked Kim Jong Il, that nation's leader, saying he has "no heart for somebody who starves his folks."
Moving on to yet another situation heightening security fears, Bush said it was not clear whether a smuggling ring was behind the FBI's search for five foreign-born men. The agency is seeking the public's help in tracking down the men, who it believes may have entered the United States illegally from Canada.
"People feeling like they got to travel here with false passports sends a pretty alarming signal to those of us that are involved with the security of the American people," Bush said.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.