The State Department's second ranking official said Tuesday he has no doubt that the United States and North Korea will open a dialogue on Pyongyang's nuclear development programs.
"Of course we're going to have direct talks with the North Koreans," Richard Armitage told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
He said the initiative would be carried out in concert with other nations so that North Korea's weapons program is not perceived as strictly a U.S.-North Korean problem.
Armitage went further than the administration had previously in discussing the likelihood of U.S.-North Korean talks.
Last fall, the administration's position was that there would be no dialogue with North Korea in response to its violations of commitments not to develop nuclear weapons.
Armitage ruled out U.S. acceptance of North Korea's demand for negotiations leading to a nonaggression treaty.
Noting that treaties require Senate ratification, Armitage said there was "zero chance" of a proposed treaty receiving the required two-thirds majority support for Senate confirmation.
Committee Chairman Richard Lugar said he favors direct talks with Pyongyang.
"While the United States is and should be prepared to use force related to North Korea's weapons of mass destruction," he said, "we must guarantee to the American public and to Americans serving in Korea that all diplomatic options are being pursued."
As the hearing was taking place, Secretary of State Colin Powell was meeting with Chyung Dai-chul, a senior adviser to South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun,
Afterward, Chyung told reporters the United States should open a dialogue with North Korea in the context of international backing.
He also said the United States and South Korea must reinforce their defense alliance.
"Korea and the United States should become one," Chyung said. "President Bush and future President Roh should become one as well."
There is growing alarm in both countries about North Korea's apparent attempt to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Mr. Bush says he believes a diplomatic solution can be reached.
The Pentagon is weighing the possibility of bolstering U.S. forces in the region. This could be an attempt to convince North Korea that the United States is prepared to defend its interests in Northeast Asia irrespective of how developments unfold in another potential crisis area, Iraq.
But on Tuesday, Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the top U.S. military commander in South Korea, denied he had requested reinforcements. He made the statement after U.S. officials in Washington said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula and adding bombers in Guam.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush's belief in a diplomatic solution "doesn't mean the United States won't have contingencies and make certain those contingencies are viable."
Roh will take office on Feb. 25, replacing President Kim Dae-jung, whose administration attempted to reach out the North in the interests of peace. Like Kim, Roh does not believe that a policy of belligerence toward the North is the way to ease tensions.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld held a 45-minute meeting at the Pentagon with Chyung on Monday.
They discussed both sides' interest in modernizing the U.S.-South Korea military alliance.