The United States offered talks with North Korea on Tuesday but said it will not negotiate to halt that nation's nuclear weapons programs. North Koreans rallied in Pyongyang calling for a stronger military.
"We are not going to pay again for North Korea to live up to its obligations," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. He referred to a pledge North Korea took in 1994 to freeze the weapons programs in exchange for supplies of energy and a civilian-style reactor.
"If the North Koreans are prepared to reverse course and stop their aggressive pursuit of greater nuclear weapons capabilities, they know how to reach members of the international community," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the President Bush's National Security Council. "We are prepared to listen."
Still, the hard line the administration had taken toward an increasingly bellicose North Korea eased slightly with the offer of discussions.
The U.S. offer was included in a statement issued jointly with South Korea and Japan after two days of meetings at the State Department. A copy of the joint communique was sent to the North Korean mission to the United Nations.
The statement was backed by Bush, who again offered assurances in a Chicago speech that "we have no aggressive intentions, no argument with the North Korean people. We're interested in peace in the Korean peninsula."
South Korea welcomed U.S. willingness to talk to North Korea. "We hope North Korea reconsiders its defiant posture and resolves tensions over its nuclear programs," said Chun Young-woo, a director general in the Foreign Ministry.
There was no immediate response by North Korea.
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-Sik said the participants in the talks agreed that North Korea should take the first step by giving up its nuclear weapons program. "Only after this can we imagine serious discussions or dialogue taking place," Lee said.
He said the United States, Japan and South Korea did not set a timetable for North Korean action, "but the situation is getting worse and worse and we all have to assume not much time is left." South Korea would continue its contacts with North Korea to stress the importance of resolving the problem, he said.
Since last fall, North Korea has taken steps to end the 1994 freeze, such as enriching weapons-grade uranium and removing detection devices that helped the International Atomic Energy Agency monitor North Korea's programs.
Boucher described the proposal as "an unconditional offer to talk to North Korea about how it can meet its international obligations." Among those obligations is an accord with South Korea that the peninsula would be kept free of nuclear weapons.
"We will obviously be looking to see how North Korea responds and what they say, either in private or in public, what they are willing to do," Boucher said.
Bush has threatened Iraq with war if it does not rid itself of weapons of mass destruction. But he said in North Korea's case "working with countries in the region, diplomacy will work."
The conciliation failed to make a dent in North Korea's public stance, however. Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied Tuesday in Pyongyang calling for a stronger military. And the government said U.S. economic sanctions would lead to war.
The joint statement in Washington said Japan's and South Korea's dialogues with North Korea "serve as important channels to resolve issues of bilateral concern."
The statement added, "the U.S. delegation explained that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet with its obligations to the international community."
There was no mention in the statement of a South Korean proposal that the United States assure North Korea's security in exchange for freezing the nuclear weapons program.
Nor did the statement reject North Korea's call for a nonaggression treaty with the United States, though Boucher ruled out renegotiating the terms of a freeze.
The three nations also restated their intention to pursue a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
"There is no security rationale for North Korea to possess nuclear weapons," the statement said.
The U.N. nuclear agency on Monday strongly criticized the steps taken by North Korea to hinder monitoring of its programs. The 35-nation declaration could be a step toward asking the Security Council to impose worldwide economic sanctions on Pyongyang.
Three leading Democratic senators, meanwhile, sent a letter Monday to Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, saying the administration's policy "is erratic and seems to careen from one approach to another." "One day, administration officials indicate that North Korea's actions are a major and urgent threat, the next day we are told the administration does not consider the Korean situation a crisis," said the letter, from Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan.
The senators asked Rice to "clear up the confusion about the goals and focus of U.S. policy" by briefing the Senate this week.
Biden is the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and Levin is the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.