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U.N. Inspectors Leave North Korea, Pres. Bush Confident of Diplomatic Solution

Despite North Korea’s statements, President Bush expressed optimism that the situation could be solved diplomatically.

In his first remarks on North Korea in two weeks, the president said “all options are on the table” and that he thought the crisis could be resolved peacefully.

“I do not believe this is a military showdown. It is a diplomatic showdown,” President Bush told reporters from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Earlier in the day the Russian Interfax news agency reported Tuesday that Pak Ui Chun, North Korea’s ambassador to Russia, said Washington had threatened North Korea with a “pre-emptive nuclear strike.”

“North Korea is not currently able to meet its commitments under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This is the fault of the United States,” Ambassador Chun said at a news conference in Moscow.

“These conditions also make it impossible for us to abide by the treaty, whose main provision bans nuclear powers from using nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them,” Chun said.

The two expelled U.N. inspectors — a Lebanese man and a Chinese woman — were ordered to leave last week when North Korea said it would no longer allow the international observers access to a nuclear facility.

“We cannot comment on anything at this stage,” said one of the inspectors upon arrival Tuesday at Beijing’s Capital Airport. The team is expected to submit a report to the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on January 6.

In recent weeks, North Korea removed monitoring seals and cameras from its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon that were frozen under the terms of a 1994 agreement. In that agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, a U.S.-led consortium promised to supply fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant reactors in exchange for North Korean compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The North Korean government has said the responsibility to prevent an escalating conflict lies with the United States, which recently halted oil shipments to the impoverished nation in response to the North’s admission that it secretly continued a nuclear program despite the treaty.

An IAEA spokeswoman said the departure of the inspectors had blinded the “eyes of the world.”

“Now we virtually have no possibility to monitor North Korea’s nuclear activities nor to provide any assurances to the international community that they are not producing a nuclear weapon,” said Melissa Fleming.

South Korea’s President-elect Roh Moo-hyun expressed concern that the U.S. may turn to economic sanctions in order to put pressure on the North and requested that the White House consult the South before forming a new approach.

“I am skeptical whether so-called ‘tailored containment’ reportedly being considered by the United States is an effective means to control or impose a surrender on North Korea,” Roh told reporters.

In the South Korean capital of Seoul some 22,000 South Koreans held a New Year’s Eve protest near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, setting off fireworks and lighting candles.

Protestors demonstrated against Washington’s hard line toward the North. “We oppose U.S. policy that spawns tension on the Korean peninsula,” some signs at the rally read.

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