WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Japan, China and South Korea to compare notes on the developing crisis in North Korea and to attend the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun.
Powell departs Friday and will make overnight stops in Tokyo and Beijing before heading to Seoul for Tuesday's inauguration.
It will be Powell's first trip to the region since North Korea acknowledged its nuclear weapons program to U.S. diplomats last October.
The State Department withheld an announcement of the trip as long as possible, as Powell weighed the option of staying behind to deal with the Iraq situation.
The announcement of the trip by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher came as the United Nations Security Council was about to hold an informal discussion of North Korea's violations of international commitments not to develop nuclear weapons.
The issue was referred to the council last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Boucher said Powell's trip is a very important opportunity to talk with key Asian countries about the situation in North Korea.
He said the United States, Japan, China and South Korea all share the goal of making sure that North Korea abandons its nuclear programs.
"We have made clear that North Korea must visibly, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program and come into compliance with its international obligations," Boucher said.
Last week, Powell suggested that China should be doing more to persuade Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions. China provides more than 80 percent of North Korea's foreign assistance, he noted, so it has more leverage than Washington does.
Boucher said the United States is prepared to sit down with North Korea to discuss how it can meet its international obligations.
Asked about the possibility of a Powell meeting with North Koreans in Asia, Boucher said, "I have not heard of any North Korean delegation that he might consider meeting with there."
He added that sanctions against North Korea are not being considered at this point.
Roh, the South Korean president-elect, has suggested that he is worried the United States may try to resolve the nuclear dispute with a military attack against the North. If the United States considers that option he would oppose it, Roh said.
Boucher, reaffirming a long-standing U.S. position, said, "We have no plans to attack or invade North Korea."