WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats said Sunday the Bush administration has allowed relations with South Korea to weaken while the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program escalates.
Talks on the situation were beginning Monday in Washington among U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials, and Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was heading to Seoul afterward for further discussions.
Also this week, South Korea's national security adviser is visiting the capital with a proposal to ease U.S.-North Korean tensions.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Bush administration to begin direct talks with North Korea.
"That does not imply capitulation. It does not imply concessions. It just simply means face to face we are going to discuss the differences ... in order to avoid miscalculation," Levin said on Fox News Sunday.
Administration officials have rejected negotiations with North Korea until it ends its nuclear programs.
North Korea admitted in October that it had a uranium enrichment program, which violated a 1994 agreement. The United States and its allies responded by halting oil supplies promised in the agreement. North Korea then announced it would reactivate its older plutonium-based nuclear program and evict international inspectors.
South Korea has been urging negotiations to end the crisis. Its proposal is expected to involve North Korean concessions on nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. On Sunday, its deputy foreign minister, Kim Hang-kyung, was in Moscow getting support for talks from Russia.
South Korea's emphasis on negotiations has placed it at odds with the administration. Bush has been suspicious of North Korea's isolated, authoritarian government, linking it with Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil."
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, called Bush's North Korea policy a failure and said relations with South Korea have deteriorated.
Bush should send Secretary of State Colin Powell on a diplomatic mission "to show that we really are engaged on this issue and we care about what's going on," he said on ABC's This Week.
Levin said the administration has failed to consult with South Korea on issues in the region. "These are our allies, we ought to be dealing with them as allies and not as junior partners," he said.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he favors Bush's "muscular approach" to foreign policy, "but if you're going to use tough rhetoric you better be prepared to back it up."
"And what we've had here is the North Korean regime has basically called our bluff," he said in a televised interview.
White House and State Department officials had no comment Sunday. On Friday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States has been working closely with South Korea and Japan to stop North Korea weapon's program.
Republicans defended Bush's approach.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma said Bush was right to be wary of negotiations with North Korea. Under the 1994 agreement, President Clinton was "paying ransom" to stop the nuclear weapons program, he said.
"And guess what? During those several years that we were paying the ransom, North Korea was still building nuclear weapons," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that with oil and food support, United States was indirectly propping up an oppressive nation that is "governed by a sociopath" — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"If you allow the North Koreans to gain some sort of leverage or agreement that would be beneficial to them, that will be a lesson to all other nations: Do the same thing," he said on CBS' Face the Nation.