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Kerry: N. Korea strike possible

Kerry and Bush faced off Thursday in the first of three presidential debates.
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North Korea

(CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has refused to rule out a first strike on North Korea in an effort to halt its nuclear weapons program.

But in separate comments during the first presidential debate, Kerry said if he became president he would initiate bilateral talks with North Korea -- a step President Bush immediately described as a "big mistake".

Asked if he would consider a first strike move if efforts to enforce diplomacy didn't work, and if he would use U.S. troops in a pre-emptive attack, Kerry told Diane Sawyer of ABC's Good Morning America, "I wouldn't rule out anything."

"I would consider whatever is necessary to protect the United States of America," he said in the interview, which was taped Tuesday, ahead of the U.S. presidential debate focusing on foreign policy issues.

During Thursday's debate, Kerry said that nuclear proliferation was a major problem. As part of tackling that, he said: "I'm going to immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea."

That brought a quick response from President Bush:

"I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea," he said

"It's precisely what (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il wants. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong Il to get rid of his weapons. It's a big mistake to do that."

North Korea has claimed to have two or as many as six nuclear weapons, and U.S. intelligence reports recently indicated that Pyongyang planned to test launch a ballistic missile.

On Monday, a senior North Korean official called those reports "only guessing and rumor."

"There are many reports, there are many allegations. ... It is only rumor and guess," said Choe Su Hon, North Korea's vice foreign minister.

President Bush branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech, along with Iraq and Iran.

But critics say that since then, aside from harsh words, the Bush administration has done little to deal with it.

"I think what's happened here is that the president has been so totally distracted by Iraq that he's been unable to address the North Korean problem in a serious way and it's just on hold," Sen. Carl Levin told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

"It seems to me it is a very dangerous situation to let that fester, but because of the Iraq problems we're into now, that is what is happening in North Korea."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss said that with the lack of open dialogue between the two countries, Bush is handling the situation in the right way.

"I think President Bush is facing this in a proper way right now, and letting North Korea know that we're not going to tolerate weapons of mass destruction in the hands of somebody like Kim Jong Il," he said.

"I think the Bush administration has got to remain firm in dealing with him."

North Korea has been participating in six-way talks, which have been hosted by China and include the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Negotiations were tentatively scheduled to resume this month, but no meetings were held.

Bill Rammell, a British Foreign Office minister who met with North Korean officials in recent months, said September 21 he believed Pyongyang was still committed to taking part in the talks to end the standoff over its nuclear program.

However, he said, it appears Kim's government is waiting for the outcome of the November election in the United States before deciding its next move.

So far, three rounds of talks involving the sextet have failed to make significant progress toward an end to the nuclear impasse.

Since the crisis flared up in October 2002, Pyongyang has said it will freeze its nuclear activities in return for economic and fuel aid, a security guarantee from the United States not to attack and other concessions.

But the United States has said that North Korea would have to take concrete steps toward dismantling its program before it would offer a security guarantee.

Under the U.S. outline, North Korea would provide a full declaration of its nuclear activities and cease all of them; secure any fissile material that could be used to produce a nuclear bomb; disable any dangerous materials; and allow inspectors to return.

In exchange, the other countries in the talks would provide Pyongyang with badly needed heavy fuel oil, and the United States would offer a "provisional" guarantee not to attack North Korea.

CNN Producer Jonathan Wald contributed to this report

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