The State Department's No. 2 official on Tuesday gave senators the Bush administration's strongest assurance to date that the United States intends to have direct talks with North Korea on its nuclear programs.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage also acknowledged that the Pentagon may bolster U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean in case "North Korea would, in some fashion, try to take advantage of our focus on Iraq."

Less than a week after Armitage appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explaining why war might be necessary against Iraq, he returned to tell often-skeptical lawmakers why a different approach was needed with North Korea, which he conceded poses a greater nuclear threat than Iraq.

He said Iraq has stronger ties to terrorists and that diplomatic efforts with North Korea are relatively new, while Iraq's defiance has lasted 12 years. Also, North Korea's weapons programs seem to be tied to the country's dire economic needs while Iraq is pursuing weapons "to dominate, to intimidate and to attack," he said.

Armitage repeated the Bush administration's position that North Korea's nuclear program isn't a crisis. He said the administration wasn't trying to make it appear less important than Iraq, but "why tell the other guy he's gotten your attention so much?"

After Chairman Richard Lugar urged the administration to begin direct talks with North Korea, Armitage said "there's no question" that direct talks will have to take place.

He said the initiative would be carried out with other nations so that North Korea's weapons program is not perceived as strictly a U.S.-North Korean problem.

Elaborating later, he said no timetable was set for talks and it wouldn't be "before we get a steady government" in South Korea, where President-elect Roh Moo-hyun will be inaugurated Feb. 25.

Armitage said he discussed direct talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell that morning and "we're absolutely going to have to talk with them, bilaterally. We acknowledge that."

Armitage suggested the Senate itself might pose an obstacle to a diplomatic resolution with North Korea. Noting North Korean demands for a nonaggression treaty, Armitage said there was "zero chance" of a proposed treaty receiving the required two-thirds majority support for Senate ratification.

The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, questioned that. "If the president of the United States said he wanted it, I'll bet you a million dollars it would change," he said.

On the possibility of strengthening U.N. forces in the Pacific, Armitage said that "nothing has moved forward," yet. He called it "a prudent military planning procedure" in case of North Korean action against South Korea, Japan or other allies.

Also on Tuesday, Powell met with Chyung Dai-chul, a senior adviser to South Korea's president-elect.

Afterward, Chyung told reporters the United States should open a dialogue with North Korea with international backing. He also said the United States and South Korea must reinforce their defense alliance.

"Korea and the United States should become one," Chyung said. "President Bush and future President Roh should become one as well."

Roh will replace President Kim Dae-jung, whose administration attempted to reach out to the North in the interests of peace. Like Kim, Roh does not believe that a policy of belligerence toward the North is the way to ease tensions.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met at the Pentagon with Chyung on Monday. A senior official familiar with the talks said Tuesday that Chyung presented a statement from the president-elect expressing his interest in making the U.S.-South Korea military alliance a "true partnership."

The Pentagon and the South Korean military worked out an agreement last year to consolidate U.S. military installations in South Korea over a 10-year period to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in urban areas. Rumsfeld and Chyung agreed that they must expand and accelerate that plan, the senior defense official said.