The United States has "robust plans for any contingencies" involving North Korea, including military action, the White House said Thursday amid a flurry of criticism from Democrats and talk of war from Pyongyang.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said there is a "real cause for concern" over North Korea's assertions Wednesday that pre-emptive attacks on its nuclear facilities would trigger "total war." He said President George W. Bush still believes North Korea's nuclear ambitions can be curbed peacefully.
"This kind of talk only hurts North Korea," which faces international isolation, the spokesman said. "That's the real cause for concern ... but we always have contingency plans."
"The United States is very prepared with robust plans for any contingencies," he told reporters. Afterward, Fleischer said he was talking about military contingencies.
The harsh rhetoric came a day after North Korea said it was putting the operation of its nuclear facilities on a "normal footing," triggering fears it was about to produce weapons materials. South Korea said it had no sign that the North had reactivated its nuclear facilities, but officials said the North's statements were unclear and that they were trying to clear them up.
"When the U.S. makes a surprise attack on our peaceful facilities, it will spark off a total war," the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary carried by North Korea's official news agency, KCNA.
As CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, North Korea's defiant announcement that it is restarting a nuclear plant left South Korean officials warning that, without a diplomatic breakthrough, this crisis could slip out of control.
"This kind of escalation could only bring about disaster in the end," said Sangwoo Kim, a presidential advisor.
The fear is spreading, and Japan may deploy two of its Aegis destroyers to monitor the North.
Officials in Tokyo and elsewhere in Asia suspect that North Korea's actions are mostly bluster, aimed at forcing the U.S. into talks that would lead to massive economic aid. But they also admit this is brinkmanship of the worst kind because it's backed by nuclear weapons.
According to Petersen, the North is already waging a battle of insults and there was no letup today. The U.S. policy, it said, "is a policy of war ... to strangle North Korea."
Ri Pyong Gap, a spokesman and deputy director at the North's Foreign Ministry, told London's The Guardian newspaper that the impoverished country was entitled to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States.
"The United States says that after Iraq, we are next," the paper quoted Ri as saying, "but we have our own countermeasures. Pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the U.S."
U.S. officials have spoken before about their ability to respond to any potential hostile action by North Korea, in part to dispel any hopes Pyongyang may have about taking advantage of Bush's focus on Iraq. The nuclear standoff with North Korea, which intensified last fall, has complicated Bush's efforts to rally the nation and skeptical world leaders behind his bid to disarm Saddam Hussein.
The administration's policy came under attack Thursday, even as Fleischer spoke at the White House and Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I do not understand the lack of a sense of urgency," said Sen. Joe Biden, top Democrat on the panel said outside the committee room.
Biden, on the floor of the Senate, said: "Mr. President Bush, please, please, if you don't want to enunciate it, in your mind Mr. President, treat this as a crisis because it is, if not contained now.'
Also on the Senate floor, Democratic leader Tom Daschle said, "The president should stop downplaying this threat, start paying more attention to it and immediately engage the North Koreans in direct talks."
Declaring the North Korean nuclear threat more serious than Iraq's weapons programs, Sen. John Kerry accused the administration of having a "fuzzy policy." Kerry, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the administration had taken all options off the table, including the use of force and applying economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
Rejecting the criticism, Powell said, "The president has retained all his options" even while the United States has told North Korea it does not plan an attack.
"I still feel it is possible to find a diplomatic solution," the secretary of state said.
Powell also told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korea would benefit economically by curbing its nuclear ambitions.
"The president has made it clear time and time again: We want to help the North Korean people who are starving, who are in economic distress, but we have to find a way to do it that does not suggest to the North Koreans that we are doing it because they have this tool, this weapon," he said.