WASHINGTON - The Bush administration stands firm in its approach to dealing with North Korea's nuclear activity and is by no means stalling until the situation with Iraq is resolved, a top State Department official told Congress yesterday.
"There is an urgency and a seriousness all of its own in the North Korean issue. And this strategy is not a strategy of simply buying some time to get past the Iraq issue at all," James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He also told the senators that there is "no wiggle room" in the U.S. position on North Korea and nuclear weapons: "We are determined that North Korea not become a nuclear power, acknowledged or unacknowledged."
The United States and North Korea are at an impasse. North Korea insists on bilateral talks, while the United States seeks a multilateral approach that includes other nations in the region.
Kelly said President Bush, who has repeatedly said he believes that the situation can be resolved diplomatically, is open to a "bold approach" to dealing with North Korea after it dismantles its nuclear program and addresses other long-standing concerns such as human rights.
A number of Republican and Democratic senators urged the administration to consider engaging in direct discussions with North Korea.
Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said that "it is vital that the United States be open to bilateral diplomatic opportunities."
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said, "Maybe we have to go and meet somebody one-to-one and look them in the eye. And if that's what it takes to de-fang them, that would be my advice."
But Kelly said the administration is convinced that past approaches with North Korea failed to achieve the kind of long-term solution that is desired.
He said that while North Korea's neighbors would prefer that the United States make the problem "go away," considerable progress had been made in convincing them that a multilateral approach should be undertaken.
Kelly said he did not see the current divisions at the United Nations over Iraq spilling over into the North Korean situation.
"The French, I think, yield to no one in their distaste for the nuclear activities of the North Koreans," he said. "And that is the same for most of the other serious players in the world."
He also said that North Korea's demand for bilateral discussions with the United States includes the demand that subsequent verification be conducted by the United States - not the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been monitoring its compliance with a previous agreement .
"That's just an unacceptable development for us," Kelly said. "The IAEA has to be involved in the nuclear weapons issues around the globe."
North Korea has also objected to long-planned combined military exercises under way by U.S. and South Korean forces. Six F-117A stealth jet fighters are participating in the operation, and spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis said that it had been planned for a year.
Also yesterday, news reports cited anonymous U.S. military sources saying that reconnaissance flights were being resumed off North Korea.
On March 2, North Korean jets shadowed and closely approached a U.S. reconnaissance plane that the Pentagon said was in international air space over the Sea of Japan.
Davis said that the Pentagon would not comment on specific operations but added that the U.S. continues to conduct lawful flights around the world and has taken steps to provide for their safety.