WASHINGTON — Facing a barrage of critical questions from senators about U.S. policy toward North Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage promised for the first time Tuesday that the Bush administration would hold direct talks with the regime in Pyongyang.
"Of course we're going to have direct talks with the North Koreans. There's no question about it," Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pyongyang has pressed for one-on-one talks, but the United States had insisted that the regime must first abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Senators from both parties raised sharp questions about why the administration is dealing with Iraq and North Korea so differently, why it waited so long to take action to stop North Korea's nuclear program, and how it intends to repair relations with South Korea, which have been frayed by the confrontation.
The gruff, barrel-chested Armitage staunchly defended the administration's assertions that the dispute with North Korea is not a crisis, although he acknowledged it might yet become one. His remarks went beyond President Bush's offer last month to "talk" to North Korea, although the deputy secretary said the administration wants "a multilateral umbrella, of any sort, in a bilateral discussion."
And he portrayed North Korea as a rogue regime armed with biological and chemical weapons and capable of selling weapons-grade plutonium to the highest bidder.
Still, Armitage's remarks were the strongest indication yet that the administration is struggling to accommodate the South Korean and Japanese desire for immediate U.S.-North Korean talks to defuse the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula without appeasing Pyongyang.
Armitage argued that unlike in Iraq, where 12 years of diplomatic efforts have not produced a solution, attempts to reach a peaceful settlement with North Korea have been underway for only a few months.
He didn't cite any conditions for talks but said that before the U.S. sits down at the table, it wants a "strong international platform" to make certain that North Korea's nuclear program is handled as a threat to world peace, not merely as a U.S.-North Korea dispute. He said the administration had agreed with the South Koreans at least a month ago to hold direct talks with the North, and "it's a question of when we're going to do it and how."
Armitage's remarks, if not a policy reversal, were "at least a continued demonstration of flexibility," said Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Honolulu think tank. The administration needs to show such flexibility, he said, "just to keep the South Koreans on board."
For months after North Korea admitted its secret nuclear program last fall, the administration refused to negotiate with Pyongyang.
But the revelation last week that North Korea might be moving its plutonium fuel rods, which could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, raised alarms on both sides of the Pacific and across the political spectrum.
Several senators expressed anxiety and dismay at the news that North Korea could produce plutonium to make as many as six nuclear weapons in about six months if it begins reprocessing the spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear plant.
"Time is not on our side," said Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "If [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il is in a certain state of mind, he feels threatened.... And he's got the bomb.... It's the better part of wisdom to presume he's desperate." Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked whether Bush's labeling of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" a year ago had been a diplomatic blunder. Armitage said he and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had seen the language before Bush delivered the speech and had agreed with the characterization.
Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who decried what he characterized as world inaction on the standoff. The North Koreans, he said, may be trucking away fuel rods from the Yongbyon facility to a site where they can't be seen or be entombed by an airstrike.
"But as this loose-nukes disaster unfolds and the options for dealing with it narrow, the world does nothing," Carter said. "What is going on at Yongbyon as we speak is a huge foreign policy defeat for the United States and a setback for decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy."
Armitage said the North Koreans have stiffened their demands for a nonaggression pact, saying they would not accept a mere written guarantee from Bush but rather want a treaty ratified by the Senate. South Korean sources said the demand was apparently prompted by North Korea's fear that in a U.S. political system in which foreign policy shifts dramatically between administrations, a president's signature without Senate approval isn't adequate to guarantee security.