CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush, declaring yesterday that the world would work in concert to ensure "the Korean Peninsula to be nuclear weapons-free," played down differences with Asian nations over how to handle the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
Late last year, he recalled, Japan, South Korea and the European Union had joined him in curtailing oil shipments to Pyongyang.
The president insisted that despite widespread evidence of American disputes with South Korea and China about whether to isolate North Korea, Washington's efforts to rally reluctant Asian nations against Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, might be succeeding.
"They may be putting pressure on, and you just don't know about it," Bush said, referring to China and South Korea. "I know that they're not reluctant when it comes to the idea of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. And we are in constant contact with the Japanese and the South Koreans and the Chinese and the Russians."
The U.S. effort to force a common position among the Asian allies is heating up. Senior Japanese and South Korean diplomats are coming to Washington this weekend; they are expected to issue a statement Monday. Then James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will travel to the region.
Bush's comments came as his advisers drafted plans to argue in the United Nations Security Council that although Iraq should face military consequences for failing to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, there was still time for diplomacy and economic pressure to contain North Korea's nuclear projects.
Representatives of several countries on the Security Council are beginning to make the case that the inspection process in Iraq should be allowed to run its course and that Washington should be pressed to take the same kind of step-by-step approach with Saddam Hussein that it is taking with Kim.
Bush's aides say they disagree; in the next few weeks they plan to assert that Iraq is a special case, impervious to the kinds of economic pressure that Bush is trying with North Korea.
"We have basically exhausted diplomacy and containment in Iraq," one senior administration official said yesterday. "We haven't in Korea."
But in private, several of the president's advisers acknowledge that the North Korean crisis has complicated their diplomatic task at the United Nations. So has Bush's determination that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea is not viable even if Kim is only months away from adding to his nuclear arsenal, the advisers say.
"We will be facing considerable skepticism on the question of how we can justify confrontation with Saddam when he is letting inspectors into the country, and a diplomatic solution with Kim when he's just thrown them out," one senior diplomat acknowledged yesterday. "And we're working on the answer."
After a four-mile hike around his 1,600-acre ranch yesterday, Bush made his most direct public criticism of Kim since the Korean crisis began.
Bush described Kim as "somebody who starves his people" and who knowingly violated the 1994 agreement with the United States to forgo nuclear weapons in return for energy aid.
"We've got a great heart," Bush said of the United States, noting the nation's food donations to North Korea, "but I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks."
Bush's comments were noticeably different in tone from his encounter with reporters outside a Crawford coffee shop on New Year's Eve. At that time he was harshly critical of Hussein - suggesting he might be hiding nuclear weapons - but he made no mention of North Korea's weapons projects, its ejection of inspectors or any consequences it might face.
The lopsided nature of his comparison worried some of Bush's advisers, who feared that he was not sending a strong enough message to Kim.
So when reporters asked Bush about North Korea yesterday, he seemed prepared with much stronger statements. He accused Kim of blatant economic mismanagement, at a time when, according to Central Intelligence Agency estimates, 30 percent of North Korea's gross domestic product goes to the military.
"The United States of America is the largest - one of the largest, if not the largest donor of food to the North Korean people," Bush said.
"And one of the reasons why the people are starving is because the leader of North Korea hasn't seen to it that their economy is strong or that they be fed."
North Korean officials have said that because of the oil cutoff, they had no choice but to start up the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which has been shut down since the 1994 agreement with the United States.
But Bush was unapologetic about that American-led move yesterday, portraying the standoff as pitting North Korea against its neighbors rather than just against the United States.
The oil shipments are controlled by the Korean Energy Development Organization, set up to meet the West's obligations under the 1994 accord.
The organization includes Japan, South Korea and the European Union, and while the vote to cut off oil was unanimous, it was hardly made without acrimony. South Korea was the most hesitant, warning the United States that cutting off North Korea's oil could lead to a rekindling of the country's plutonium production.
Bush emphasized yesterday that "the decision to cut off fuel oil was a joint decision, it was not a U.S. decision."