The Bush administration is denying that an assistant secretary's offer to help North Korea resolve its energy problems is a reward for that country's bad behavior.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was in Seoul, South Korea, Monday where he told reporters that the United States is willing to consider energy aid for North Korea if Pyongyang ends nuclear weapons development.
"We are, of course, willing to talk to North Korea about their response to the international community, particularly with the respect to elimination of nuclear weapons. And we are talking here with the government people over some of the best ways to do that. Once we get beyond the nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., private investors in other countries to help North Korea in the energy area."
The Clinton White House made a deal in 1994 to give North Korea fuel oil in exchange for a halt to weapons development. In October, Kelly confronted North Korean officials with evidence of their uranium enrichment program, beginning the current standoff.
North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last week, saying that it needed to build up its weapons program to defend itself from a hostile United States. The administration has never said that it would use military force to end North Korea's weapons development, though it always chooses to leave its options open.
The communist nation has also threatened to resume long-range missile tests and to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor to make atomic bombs.
Kelly's offer is the first tangible incentive to Pyongyang, since the standoff over its uranium enrichment program began last fall.
Over a two-day period, Kelly met with South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun, who is pushing for closer ties with North Korea and more independence from the United States. Roh said North Korea's nuclear program is unacceptable, but that the dispute must be resolved through dialogue.
Kelly also played down three days of meetings between former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and two North Korean diplomats, saying Richardson did not hear anything the North Koreans haven't already said publicly. Richardson said the North Koreans are taking a tough stance in preparation for negotiation.
White House Press secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday that the United States, Japan and South Korea agreed last week that the world is prepared to have a better relationship with North Korea than it has in the past, once the nuclear issue is resolved.
The trilateral communiqué stated that the nations held out hope for "a better path, leading toward improved relations" with the world if North Korea dropped its nuclear weapons program, Fleischer said.
Kelley's talk of energy aid fell into the category of improved relations, Fleischer said.
"So, except for the fact that he cited one specific sector of what [the communiqué] previously said on the record, I see no difference," he said, adding that Kelly's offer "is everything you have been led to believe and heard before."
Fleischer said an offer for "technical talks" between the United States and North Korean officials at the United Nations is on the table, ready for North Korean acceptance.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, say North Korea's nuclear threats are escalating toward a crisis that requires the United States to at least open a dialogue without making promises.
"It might not be in a crisis stage at the moment, but it's going to get there if something is not done about it," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday in a televised interview. "It's a question of finding out, I believe, what does North Korea really want here?"
Also urging diplomatic steps was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "We're not at a crisis level, we're at a serious level," he told NBC's Meet the Press.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged the administration to take "vigorous action" with U.S. allies, or if necessary, alone. To start, that would include economic sanctions. He also said it would be a mistake to rule out a military response.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the administration for failing to have a steady plan to deal with North Korea and at times trying to provoke leaders there.
"The question isn't whether it's a threat. It's a threat. The question is how you deal with the threat," Levin said in a televised interview. "And it seems to me, we ought to be working with allies, with South Korea, Japan and other countries there that are willing to work with us. And cut out the hot rhetoric, too, by the way. That does not help."
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.