U.S. Reacts to Nuclear News

The Bush administration, chafing under North Korea's (search) retreat from multilateral talks on nuclear disarmament, sought Thursday to push the communist country back to the bargaining table and warned that it faces increasing international isolation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) had to confront the issue head-on when the North Koreans announced their renunciation of six-nation talks as she was wrapping up her first trip abroad in her new job. At a meeting of European Union leaders in Luxembourg, she said the world had given North Korea "a way out" and that its leaders should take it.

President Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan (search), told reporters traveling with the president that the United States wants those talks to continue.

"We remain committed to a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea," McClellan said aboard Air Force One en route to Raleigh, N.C. "It's time to talk about how to move forward."

Both Rice and McClellan played down North Korea's public announcement that it has nuclear weapons. "We've heard this kind of rhetoric from North Korea before," McClellan said.

The United States will consult with its partners in negotiations — South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — on ways to resume the talks, said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

The six-way framework remains "the best and most effective way" to try to persuade North Korea to end its program and to clear the way for international acceptance of the North's government, he said.

The administration does not consider the negotiations permanently halted, a senior U.S. official said, and there will be no backing away from the six-power format.

A South Korean delegation is due in Washington on Monday for previously scheduled strategic talks and a Japanese group later in the week. Consultations will be held with them on how to proceed, said the official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also, the problem will be taken up with the Russians while Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin in the Slovak Republic Feb. 24, the official said.

U.S. officials believe North Korea may have from four to two dozen nuclear devices, depending on the assumptions used about the bombs' designs.

The United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have struggled to arrange a fourth round of talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. The last round was held in June.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Bush administration has failed to sufficiently pressure China to use its leverage with the North Koreans. She also said the United States should consider direct talks with North Korea.

"This administration has not paid enough attention to the situation in North Korea," Pelosi said. "The North Koreans know that we are otherwise occupied in military actions in other parts of the world and they have taken the liberty to be brazen."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he did not know whether North Korea has the weapons it claimed. However, he said, "One has to worry about weapons of that power in leadership of that nature. ... I don't think anyone would characterize the leadership in that country as being restrained."

In 2002, North Korea's government privately told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that it had a secret uranium-enrichment program that violated its 1994 agreement.

North Korea's announcement Thursday came one week after administration officials, speaking anonymously, said there was strong evidence that North Korea sold processed uranium to Libya.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who recently returned from a trip to North Korea with a bipartisan congressional delegation, said the North Koreans were "posturing, perhaps right before they agree to come in. They posture so they can get a better bargaining position so that when they come to the table they'll get more."

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., another member of the delegation, said the North Koreans told the group "they would monitor the statements of the Bush administration to see how belligerent the administration would be in the president's second term, and would act accordingly."