WASHINGTON – Adopting a more conciliatory stance, President Bush said Tuesday he may revive a proposal for substantial economic benefits for North Korea if it agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities.
The administration had been prepared to make such an offer last year but withdrew it after learning that the North Koreans had initiated a uranium-based nuclear weapons program.
"We expect them not to develop nuclear weapons," Bush said. "And if they so choose to do so -- their choice -- then I will reconsider whether or not we'll start the bold initiative" that he said he discussed with Secretary of State Colin Powell last year.
Bush said the initiative included food, leaving the impression that he was departing from long-standing policy of not linking assistance in that area to political developments.
Later, White House officials said Bush was referring to an agriculture reform program for North Korea, which faces yet another year of severe food shortages.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reaffirmed that food deliveries will continue irrespective of political factors. Last year, the U.S. food contribution was 155,000 metric tons.
The Bush administration generally has been more accommodating toward North Korea lately. It remains committed to the dismantling of the North's nuclear programs but has shown greater willingness than before about talking to Pyongyang. Bush's comments on Tuesday suggested good behavior will yield economic gain.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denied a report by Japan's Kyodo News agency that the United States has proposed providing North Korea with a written security guarantee signed by Bush.
"There is no truth to it," Fleischer said.
On Monday, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said in South Korea that North Korea could get energy aid if it dismantled its nuclear weapons programs.
The administration has consistently opposed opening negotiations with North Korea but Bush's remarks offered the clear possibility of a deal: U.S. assistance in exchange for denuclearization.
The more benign posture should be well received in South Korea, where both the outgoing president and the president-elect believe that a policy of belligerence toward the North doesn't work.
Speaking to reporters during a photo session with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Bush said he is convinced the conflict will be resolved peacefully.
The basis of his optimism was not clear. Pyongyang has given no indication of a willingness to back away from its nuclear programs. Indeed, since the uranium program was disclosed last October, it has threatened to revive a separate weapons program that is plutonium-based. According to administration estimates, North Korea could have up to six nuclear weapons in a few months.
North Korea withdrew from the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last week. It also has threatened to resume long-range missile tests
"People say, 'Are you willing to talk to North Korea?"' Bush said. "Of course we are. But what this nation won't do is be blackmailed."
Sen. Richard Shelby, who is stepping down from his position as the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Republican, said, "I think you should never take anything off the table in negotiating with North Korea, but I think we first have got to find out what is their endgame? Are they wanting economic help? Are they wanting investment."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the incoming Foreign Relations chairman, agreed, saying Pyongyang must be given an idea of what "lies out there for them" if they cooperate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a bill to cut off all aid to North Korea, said he wants to see food aid stopped.
"While we were giving them food aid, 2 million of their citizens starved to death because the food never got to their citizens. It went to the military."
Meanwhile, the administration responded with mixed signals to a Chinese offer to host talks between the United States and North Korea. The White House declined to react to the proposal, and the State Department was dismissive.
"The question of having talks in Beijing or New York or elsewhere really doesn't arise at this point," Boucher said at the State Department.
"The issue is whether North Korea is willing to address the concerns of the international community, and promptly and verifiably end these programs that are such an affront," he said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov also is serving as a would-be peacemaker. He plans to travel to North Korea, China and the United States in the coming days.