Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday issued a blunt warning to North Korea, which test-fired a missile on Sunday, that the United States can “deter whatever the North Koreans are up to.”

“I don’t think anyone is confused about the ability of the United States to deter — both on behalf of itself and on behalf of its allies — North Korean nuclear ambitions or gains on the peninsula,” Miss Rice said during an appearance at the State Department with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. “We have, after all, a very strong alliance with South Korea and a very strong alliance with Japan.

“And, of course, the United States maintains significant — and I want to underline significant — deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region,” she added. “So I don’t think there should be any doubt about our ability to deter whatever the North Koreans are up to.”

The warning came as the United Nations opened a nonproliferation conference at which the Bush administration called for international pressure on North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear ambitions.

“They need to make a strategic decision to abandon their nuclear weapons programs,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

“The international community is speaking very clearly to both nations and saying: ‘You’re only going to further isolate yourself if you take steps that run contrary to what the international community expects,’” he added. “‘You will realize better relations if you pursue a course like Libya, and abandon your nuclear weapons programs.’”

Global tensions over nuclear proliferation escalated during the weekend when North Korea fired a short-range missile into the East Sea/Sea of Japan, and Iran warned that it might resume enrichment of uranium after the failure of talks with European nations.

“I would hope that the Iranians would not take a unilateral decision to initiate any activities that now are currently suspended,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at the nonproliferation conference in New York.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned that a unilateral move by Iran would force the international community to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

“I think it’s important that the talks continue, but the basis must be that the enrichment program remains suspended,” he said. “I hope that the process will not collapse, but the Iranians know the alternative would be the Security Council.”

Mr. ElBaradei also urged North Korea to resume six-party talks with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, which have been stalled for nearly a year.

“The earlier the parties go back to the negotiating table, the better,” he said. “There is no other solution except all of the parties put all their grievances together on the table and get a … solution that addresses Korean security and economic needs and addresses this whole nuclear program.”

Despite Miss Rice’s tough talk about U.S. military assets deterring North Korea, the White House emphasized the need for a peaceful solution.

“We’re pursuing a diplomatic solution through the six-party talks,” Mr. McClellan said. “I don’t think there’s a need to go through ‘what ifs’ at this point.”

Miss Rice also met yesterday with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, who said both nations are urging China to help rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Mr. McClellan said the U.S. thinks North Korea “may have one or two” nuclear weapons, although he would not say whether such weapons could be placed on long-range missiles capable of striking the United States.

“We don’t know if they have the capability to do that or not, but that’s all the more reason why we need to take steps under the assumption that they can, because of the regime that is in power there,” he said.

“And that’s why [President Bush] talked about the importance of moving forward on the missile defense system,” Mr. McClellan added. “That’s one important deterrent that we continue to pursue.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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