The United States, North Korea and four other nations agreed Tuesday to discuss a freezing of the North's nuclear program and inspections that would lead to its eventual dismantlement, a South Korean official said.
And Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted that Iran faced the prospect of U.N. economic sanctions if it did not prove to the world it has no nuclear weapons.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said America is at greater risk of a nuclear attack from terrorists because of the Bush administration's "single-minded focus on Iraq."
In remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday, Kennedy said North Korea and Iran have continued unchecked with their nuclear buildups while the United States preoccupies itself with Iraq.
"Instead of leading the world against the real threat of Iran's nuclear program, the president chose to lead America alone into the quicksand to counter the mirage of a threat in Iraq," Kennedy said in the remarks, prepared for a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The United States alleged before the war that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an active program for nuclear weapons. No stockpiles have been found. Evidence has not surfaced of active programs in chemical or nuclear weapons, although some facilities for biological weapons work may have been maintained.
President Bush has said the Iraq war was justified by removing a brutal dictator who opposed Middle East peace and .
In remarks to the Carnegie Endowment on Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei said that "all evidence to date indicates that Iraq's nuclear weapons program had been effectively dismantled in the 1990s through IAEA inspection — as we were nearly ready to conclude before the war."
He claimed that "the Iraq experience demonstrated that inspections — while requiring time and patience — can be effective even when the country under inspection was providing less than active cooperation."
The Massachusetts Democrat said the administration's efforts to rid Iraq of a nuclear program it didn't have not only has destroyed U.S. credibility around the world, but has made al Qaeda terrorists more determined to launch a nuclear attack on America.
Kennedy said the administration's unilateralism has caused a serious setback in nonproliferation policies. And he said Bush has compounded that neglect by pursuing research into a new type of nuclear weapon, called "bunker busters." The Senate last week rejected an effort to strip funding for the administration's research into mini-nukes.
But the United States is not the only one getting blame. In his remarks Monday, ElBaradei slammed the Security Council for failing to take action against North Korea.
"This lack of response, this inaction, may be setting the worst precedent of all, if it conveys the message that acquiring a nuclear deterrent, by whatever means, will neutralize any compliance mechanism and guarantee preferred treatment," he said.
The began in October 2002, when the United States said the North admitted running a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. The U.S. cut off fuel shipments, prompting the North to throw out international inspectors. U.S. intelligence has estimated that North Korea already has one or two crude nuclear devices.
Two earlier rounds of talks among the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States ended with little progress.
Some of the governments are now working on plans to offer the North aid in exchange for suspending its clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
In Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said North Korea appeared to be more cooperative this round, and expressed hope for "major progress."
But the chief U.S. delegate, James Kelly, expressed less optimism.
"There is no particular reason to be optimistic, but I've come prepared for serious discussions," Kelly said.
North Korea has suffered food shortages and other problems since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farm system had collapsed after decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet subsidies. The North wants aid in exchange for an initial freeze of its nuclear program.
But the United States says it will only offer assistance to North Korea's faltering economy if the isolated dictatorship proves its willingness to undertake a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling" of its program.
Under a plan being discussed ahead of the talks, the United States would not give assistance, but Japan and South Korea would provide aid in stages, a senior Bush administration official said in Washington.
In September, when the IAEA holds its next scheduled meeting, "judgments can be made as to what action might be appropriate" against , Powell said.
His statement followed an assertion in Tehran by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons. At the same time, the ayatollah vowed Iran would not give up its program to enrich uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors.
"If Europeans and others are really worried that we may acquire nuclear weapons, we assure them that we are not seeking to produce such weapons," Khamenei said.
"But if they are unhappy about Iran's access to the outstanding nuclear technology and want to stop this trend, I tell them they should be assured that the Iranian nation won't give in on this," he told a gathering of university officials.
Last Friday, the U.N. nuclear agency rebuked Iran for covering up its programs and warned it had little time left to disprove it had a nuclear weapons program.
Asked how close the United States was to seeking U.N. Security Council sanctions, the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "that will depend on what Iran decides to do."