U.S. under fire over N. Korea
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration is facing the heat from a number of national security experts who say its policy towards North Korea is a failure and could lead to war.
The criticism comes after Pyongyang claimed it has enough plutonium to make half a dozen nuclear bombs.
North Korean officials told the U.S. State Department last week they had completed reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods from a nuclear plant into plutonium.
U.S. officials have said such claims are "serious" as Pyongyang has already made it clear it intends to make nuclear weapons.
While the Bush administration says it is evaluating the claims, one U.S. official involved in North Korea policy said "we have hard scientific data and evidence" to support the assessment that the North has begun reprocessing.
North Korea and the United States have been in a standoff since October when Washington said Pyongyang admitted to having a covert nuclear weapons program -- in violation of a 1994 pact.
The U.S. has so far sought a diplomatic solution, which some national security experts are now calling a failure.
The most prominent among them is former defense secretary William Perry, who told The Washington Post he thinks North Korea and the United States may be heading toward war.
Perry told the Post in an interview published Tuesday that after speaking to several senior administration officials he is baffled by Bush's policy on North Korea.
"I'm damned if I can figure out what the policy is," he said. "My theory is the reason we don't have a policy on this, and we aren't negotiating, is the president himself."
"I think he has come to the conclusion that Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and it is immoral to negotiate with him," Perry told the Post.
North Korea's claim about the fuel rods is particularly troublesome, said Perry, who as President Clinton's defense secretary directed preparations for possible airstrikes against North Korean nuclear plants in 1994.
"I have thought for some months that if the North Koreans moved toward processing [spent fuel rods], then we are on a path toward war," Perry told the Post.
But there is a clear view among some in Washington that North Korea is upping the ante to gain bargaining power to get what it wants: a non-aggression pact with the United States, as well as more oil and food aid.
"We seek a diplomatic solution, but as we move forward we will remain in close contact with South Korea, Japan, China and others to address this and find a solution," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Tuesday.
Since the standoff began, the administration has refused to offer North Korean leader Kim any concessions to give up his weapons because it believes that doing so would be nuclear blackmail.
Pyongyang is seeking one-on-one talks with Washington, but Bush has so far refused.
One Bush administration source said North Korea's declarations may make U.S. attempts at multilateral pressure easier because it forces neighbors to take the issue more seriously.
"Undoubtedly North Korea thinks it will be able to reach a very specific deal with the United States and then force all the other countries to come along," Balbina Hwang, a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation, told CNN.
"And we have to send the message that that can simply not occur."
On Tuesday, China urged North Korea to resume talks on resolving the nuclear crisis while leaving open the format and participants for such future talks, said officials and Western diplomats. (China ups the ante)
In April, China -- North Korea's largest aid donor and trading partner -- took part in a round of trilateral talks, but they collapsed after Pyongyang demanded a private meeting with Washington.
Meanwhile, John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security, plans to travel next week to China, Japan, and South Korea, one administration official said.
Bolton wants to convince these countries there is a "high bar and we are not willing to water down the requirements" of acting against possible North Korean threats, the official said.
Last month, Bolton traveled to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen on a "secret mission to say North Korea is now radioactive, in the same status as Iraq, and purchases of their missiles have a direct negative effect on U.S. security," the official said.
The countries, the official added, "got the message."
-- CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.