TOKYO – Calling it a matter of urgency, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Sunday North Korea should resume participation in nuclear disarmament (search) talks and set aside its concerns about new "hostile acts" by the United States against the communist government.
Speaking at a news conference, Powell also gave assurances that President Bush seeks a peaceful solution to the long-running impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
"We still have time," Powell said, alluding to the stalled six-party negotiating effort. Powell was flanked by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura at a news conference. He also had a half hour meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a valued U.S. ally for his support for administration policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Powell was to travel to China later Sunday and then visit South Korea.
On Friday, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said the United States is engaging in "evermore hostile acts" against the country. He cited U.S. participation eight-nation naval exercises in Japanese waters beginning Monday, and new human rights legislation on North Korea that Bush signed last week. The North Korean spokesman said the U.S. activities were designed to "block and stifle" the country.
Besides the United States and Japan, seven other countries will take part in the naval exercise, with 14 more serving as observers. The interdiction drill is part of an anti-proliferation security initiative, known as PSI, in which allied forces can intercept ships or aircraft believed carrying missiles or equipment for unconventional weapons.
The PSI was initiated last year primarily to deter North Korea (search) proliferation activities.
The new U.S. human rights law calls on North Korea to allow freedom of speech and religion and seeks disclosure of information about Japanese and South Korean citizens abducted by the communist government. In the absence of progress in these areas, the law forbids U.S. assistance to North Korea except for humanitarian purposes.
Powell said the naval exercises and the human rights law should not derail the talks.
On Saturday, Powell rejected demands by North Korea for a U.S. "reward" before the communist country would agree to resume the six-party discussions.
Powell said any proposals from North Korea should be discussed as part of that process. Also participating are the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia, besides the United States.
"This is a six-party discussion, not a U.S.-North Korea discussion or an exchange of U.S. and North Korean talking points," Powell told reporters during his flight here.
The North Korean spokesman, who was quoted by the official KCNA news agency but was not identified, said North Korea is insisting on discussing recent disclosures by South Korea that its scientists had carried out nuclear experiments involving plutonium and uranium years ago. The Bush administration has dismissed the South's experiments as insignificant and said they were of an academic nature.
A new round of six-party talks was scheduled for September in Beijing, but North Korea declined to attend.
North Korea says it has several plutonium-based nuclear weapons and denies U.S. allegations it has a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program. The United States has said it would provide economic benefits to North Korea once the North provides a credible commitment to permanent and verifiable disarmament.
Powell's decision to travel to Asia shortly before the Nov. 2 presidential election in the United States could be intended as an attempt to show resolve on one of the administration's most difficult foreign policy issues.
Democratic nominee John Kerry (search) contends the administration has mishandled the North Korea problem and should have embraced the Clinton-era policy of direct talks with the country.
Bush administration officials believe North Korea is biding its time on nuclear negotiations, sensing that Kerry might win the election and be easier to deal with than Bush, who has linked North Korea with Iran and Iraq in an "axis of evil."
On Saturday, Powell dismissed North Korean concerns about hostile U.S. intent. "We have no intention of invading them, no plans to attack," he said.
"There's nothing wrong with naval forces coming together to exercise for the purpose of seeing if we can do a better job of keeping the most dangerous cargos from reaching the most irresponsible purchasers of such cargo," Powell said. "It does not threaten North Korea. ... It protects the rest of the world."