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U.S.: Democrats Accuse Bush Of Neglecting Nuclear Crisis With North Korea

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is coming under sharp criticism from the opposition Democratic Party, which has accused Bush of being so obsessed with Iraq that he is neglecting a far more serious nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Washington, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. Democrats came out strongly against the Bush administration's policy on North Korea yesterday, accusing the White House of being so obsessed with Iraq that it is doing little to stop Pyongyang's nuclear-arms program.

Despite rising tensions with North Korea, which the United States believes is set to start reprocessing plutonium for nuclear bombs, President George W. Bush has refused to meet Pyongyang's demands for direct talks, saying that would amount to giving in to blackmail.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Bush is instead insisting that the North Korea problem be dealt with through multilateral talks involving Asia's regional powers and the United Nations. "The president has made a very clear decision with respect to North Korea that he intends to follow the diplomatic route. And the matter involving their nuclear -- the announcement of their nuclear capabilities and activities -- has been put into the United Nations," Rumsfeld said.

But a group of senior officials from former President Bill Clinton's administration and top Senate Democrats are accusing Bush of double standards in his dealings with North Korea. They are demanding that the United States open talks with Pyongyang in a last-ditch effort to resolve what they called a far more pressing problem of proliferation of weapons of mass production than what Iraq presents.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who led U.S. efforts to engage North Korea and slow down its nuclear march in the mid-1990s, told a news conference in Washington that Pyongyang could soon have several nuclear weapons. For that reason, he said the United States cannot afford to wait out the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. "Within a few months' time, the situation in North Korea will have changed fundamentally and irreversibly. And our action has to happen before that time," Perry said.

The Democrats presented the first report of the Senate Democrats' National Security Advisory Group, which is chaired by Perry and includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former national-security adviser Samuel Berger.

The report says that North Korea's move to restart its plutonium program, which would allow it build bombs, "poses the specter of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups and rogue nations. It is a massive failure for U.S. counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism policies."

The report added that by downplaying tensions with North Korea, the Bush administration gives the impression that reprocessing plutonium for possible weapons "does not cross a U.S. red line" and that the United States "cannot handle more than one crisis at a time."

Berger urged the White House to talk to the North Koreans directly, even if it is within the context of multilateral discussions, in order to sound out their intentions, that is, whether they are determined to become a nuclear power or whether an agreement can be reached avoiding that outcome.

Berger said that only after the North Koreans have been sounded out will the regional powers be willing to follow the U.S. lead on the issue. "We can engage in all the diplomacy we want. We are engaging in no diplomacy with North Korea," Berger said.

Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. insistence on a multilateral approach to North Korea is ringing hollow with countries like Russia and China because Washington has acted unilaterally on so many other issues, including in its threat to launch a war against Iraq even without United Nations sanction. "You cannot engage in quasi-unilateral actions and discount all of your allies and potential friends as it relates to Iraq and the rest of the world and then turn around the next moment and say, 'Now, by the way, we expect you to get in the deal here,'" Biden said.

Biden added that he feels the United States, at the moment, has no real policy for dealing with North Korea.

Berger said the White House was implicitly resigning itself to having a nuclear-capable North Korea. He called it "a reverse of over 30 years of bipartisan nonproliferation policy since the Non- Proliferation Treaty."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking at a briefing, denied those charges. He said the goal of U.S. policy is to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, defense officials said the United States has begun deploying 24 long-range bombers to the island of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean to deter any aggression by North Korea in case of a war in Iraq.

Rumsfeld said the deployment was a prudent move to keep peace on the Korean Peninsula and was not designed to be "aggressive or threatening or hostile" to Pyongyang.