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Bush Administration Defends Policy of Korean Containment

By Peter Slevin

Top Bush administration officials defended the deliberate pace of their evolving policy toward North Korea Thursday as a growing chorus of critics said the United States must do more -- and do it faster -- to prevent North Korea from producing atomic weapons or nuclear material that could be peddled abroad.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ample time remains for international diplomacy to deter the Pyongyang government. He said the administration is searching for a formula with its partners that does not deliver concessions unless North Korea changes its behavior.

On a day when North Korea’s official news agency warned that a pre-emptive U.S. attack on the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon would spark a “full-scale war,” Powell said the Americans have tried to lower the rhetoric while communicating with the government of Kim Jong Il through a variety of channels.

“We have tried to understand what they want. But they need to understand clearly what they have to do in order to resolve this problem,” Powell said. He added that he discussed the issue at length Wednesday with the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers as U.S. officials seek to increase pressure on North Korea and convene multi-lateral talks.

The central conundrum is an escalating series of North Korean moves to reject international nuclear agreements, produce fissile material and, analysts believe, develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons. U.S. authorities have discovered no simple way to reverse the actions, and have all but ruled out the use of force.

Time seems short to many nuclear specialists and Korea scholars who note that the Pyongyang government could produce enough high-quality plutonium for four to six weapons within a matter of months if it reclaims about 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at Yongbyon. Author Don Oberdorfer warned Thursday that “unless something is done in the next few weeks, my sense is it’s going to be too late.”