WASHINGTON – High-level delegations from South Korea and Japan brought their concerns over North Korea's nuclear program to the Bush administration on Monday and were assured the United States would "work shoulder to shoulder" with them to ease the crisis.
The two Asia allies would be vulnerable to North Korean missiles and are seeking a diplomatic solution before Pyongyang adds to the two atom bombs it is believed to possess.
As the talks wound through a long day at the State Department, President Bush again said the United States had no intention of attacking North Korea. He also predicted a peaceful resolution.
Bush said, "We expect North Korea to adhere to its obligations" and permit weapons inspections.
In an exchange with reporters at the White House, Bush said that could open the way to a resumption of dialogue with North Korea.
At the start of two days of talks, the administration declined to publicly evaluate a South Korean proposal to exchange U.S. guarantees of North Korea's security for a renewed freeze on the nuclear weapons program.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We will be listening carefully." White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "We view this as an issue that we need to work together on, and work shoulder to shoulder on."
A few hours before the talks opened, the U.N. nuclear agency approved a U.S.-supported statement that deplored North Korea's decision to block international inspection of its newly energized weapons program.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said if North Korea did not "seize this opportunity" to comply with its monitoring commitments the U.N. Security Council would be asked to review the situation.
The resolution, approved in Vienna by 35 countries ranging from China to Cuba, did not set a deadline for the North to readmit inspectors and put cameras and other equipment back in place.
ElBaradei said he hoped for a reply "in the next few days," while Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf told reporters in Washington that he expected North Korea's defiance would be reported to the Security Council.
This could lead to worldwide sanctions against the already economically hard-pressed Pyongyang government. Wolf said North Korea was the first country to unilaterally dismantle safeguards against nuclear proliferation and "we would expect they would pay attention to the broad concern" of the international community.
But North Korea went on the diplomatic offensive, accusing the United States of plotting nuclear war. "If the U.S. unleashes a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula it will not escape its destruction," the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The Bush administration was determined to forge a united front against North Korea, and plans to send Undersecretary of State John Bolton to China in late January to try to enlist Chinese support for a pressure campaign.
In the meantime, the administration has ruled out negotiations with North Korea to revive the pledge it made to the United States in 1994 to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy supplies and a civilian-style reactor.
"We are not looking to renegotiate the issue. We're not looking to make some other bargain, to make some other payment for North Korea to come into compliance with its obligations," Boucher said Monday as the delegations began their meetings.
In advance, South Korea staked out a more conciliatory approach. While insisting that North Korea re-freeze the program, Seoul leaked word before the Washington talks that it favored a U.S. security guarantee and a renewal of energy supplies in exchange.
In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promised to push North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program, saying it was in that nation's best interest. He also said he would discuss the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet later this week in Moscow.
Despite some apparent tactical differences, the talks involving Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-shik and Japanese Foreign Ministry official Mitoji Yabunaka opened with U.S. assurances the Bush administration was open-minded.
"We owe it to them as our allies and friends, we owe it to them as our partners in this endeavor, to listen to them, to talk to them, to work with them on these ideas," Boucher said.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, there is growing support for talks with North Korea.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said on Fox News Sunday that talking "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."