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Bush Draws Distinction Between N. Korea and Iraq

President defends choice of diplomacy to deal with Asian nation's nuclear arms program.

October 22, 2002|James Gerstenzang and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Monday that he would work with Asian allies to try to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to abandon the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and defended the U.S. decision to handle the crises in Iraq and North Korea differently.

In his first public comment on North Korea since its nuclear program was disclosed, Bush said the threat could be dealt with peacefully. In contrast, Bush has insisted that he be given authority, both by Congress and by the United Nations, to use force against Iraq.

Calling word of the North Korean program "a troubling discovery" that the United States views "very seriously," the president said: "I view this as an opportunity to work with our friends in the region and work with other countries in the region to ally against proliferation of serious weapons and to convince Kim Jong Il that he must disarm."

North Korea also suggested a low-key approach Monday, offering to deal with Washington.

"If the United States is willing to abandon its hostile policy toward the North, the North is ready to resolve security concerns through dialogue," said Kim Young Nam, the state's ceremonial head of state, according to South Korean reporters covering a four-day North-South meeting in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Having already placed Iraq and North Korea, along with Iran, in what the president called an "axis of evil" -- because the administration deemed each to be pursuing weapons of mass destruction -- Washington has been forced to explain why it has decided not to use force against Pyongyang while holding out the possibility of going to war against Baghdad.

"Saddam Hussein is unique in this sense: He has thumbed his nose at the world for 11 years," Bush said Monday, recounting unsuccessful U.N. efforts to get the Iraqi president to disarm as well as "the fact he's actually gassed his own people."

"He has made it very clear he hates the United States, and, as importantly, he hates friends of ours," Bush added.

The president spoke during a picture-taking session as he met with George Robertson, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

North Korea acknowledged to a visiting U.S. delegation earlier this month that it has pursued a secret nuclear weapons program, using enriched uranium, in violation of a 1994 pledge. Under the agreement, North Korea was receiving heating oil and assistance in building civilian nuclear power reactors in exchange for halting the plutonium weapons program.

The president is likely to push diplomatic efforts to pressure North Korea during a series of meetings this week.

President Jiang Zemin of China is to visit Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas, on Friday. The next day, the U.S. and Chinese presidents are scheduled to travel to a resort on Mexico's Pacific coast for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. There, Bush is to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea.

"I believe we can deal with this threat peacefully, particularly if we work together, so this is an opportunity to work together," Bush said.

On the Korean peninsula and in Washington, Pyongyang's confession continues to raise questions about whether the 1994 pact, known as the agreed framework, remains valid.

Most U.S. officials and analysts say North Korea nullified the agreement with a material breach of the deal's terms. Pyongyang said over state radio Monday that the problems are the result of U.S. dithering.

Many in Washington would be happy to see the United States walk away from the deal, which involves the delivery of 500,000 tons of oil annually and construction of two reactors valued at $4.8 billion. However, dropping it completely would also free Pyongyang to resume its plutonium bomb program.

With the current South Korean government seen as accommodating toward the North, and the United States searching for a peaceful solution that doesn't involve talking to Pyongyang itself, Japan is in a position to play a key diplomatic role.

Japanese officials have said repeatedly that they favor negotiations, but they add that no progress is possible without an agreement by North Korea on the nuclear issue.

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Gerstenzang reported from Washington and Magnier from Tokyo.

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