The United States has "robust plans for any contingencies" involving North Korea, including military action, the White House said Thursday amid 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 reiterated that President Bush believes the standoff can be resolved 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.
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 Mr. Bush's focus on Iraq. The nuclear standoff with North Korea, which intensified last fall, has complicated The president's efforts to rally the nation and skeptical world leaders behind his bid to disarm Saddam Hussein.
While continuing to insist it's not as much of a threat as Iraq, Powell told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday there is worry about North Korea's nuclear moves, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss. Powell said the administration is trying to lower the rhetoric and deliver important diplomatic messages to the North Koreans.
"We want to talk to you. We are willing to talk to you. we have no intention of attacking or invading you," he said. "We have tried to understand what they want but they need to understand clearly what they have to do in order to solve this problem."
That would be agreeing to abide by agreements on nuclear weapons.
However, Powell still insisted there won't be one-on-one talks, because China, South Korea and Japan also have to be involved — even though some of them are also urging the U.S. to have one-on-one talks.
Declaring the North Korean nuclear threat more serious than Iraq's weapons programs, Sen. John Kerry, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, accused the administration of having a "fuzzy policy." The Massachusetts Democrat 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."
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.
Sen. Barbara Boxer accused the administration of a policy of "designed neglect" toward North Korea and on other foreign policy fronts.
Referring to Mr. Bush's designation of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," she said, "I am very concerned you did not think of the ramifications of that remark."
Powell said he objected to her criticism and said the administration, with its campaign against terror, and stronger relations with Russia and China, had a foreign policy "that is geared to the problems we have in the 21st century."
Outside the hearing room, Sen. Joseph Biden assailed the administration.
"I do not understand the lack of a sense of urgency," he said.
Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed the administration quickly hold one-on one talks with North Korea instead of conditioning them on the approval of South Korea and other allies.
He said of the North Koreans, "They know we are the only nation in the world that can ensure their security. We do not have to agree to do that now, but we should sit down and talk."
Although Washington has repeatedly said it has no plans to invade North Korea, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said late Wednesday that restarting the nuclear program would give the North a troubling option — making nuclear weapons for itself or selling them to any other country.
"That is something the world has to take very seriously," he said. "It's a regime that is a terrorist regime. It's a regime that has been involved in things that are harmful to other countries."