WASHINGTON - Facing the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea, President Bush on Monday called the communist regime's claim of a nuclear test a provocative act and warned Pyongyang against exporting nuclear materials.
"Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond," Bush said.
Other world leaders joined Bush in calling for an immediate and harsh rebuke from the United Nations against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who wants to join the club of nuclear-armed nations.
Bush has made national security a key issue in the midterm congressional elections, and Democrats said North Korea's success in raising the stakes in the nuclear standoff was evidence that Bush's policy was flawed.
The president called the leaders of South Korea, Russia, Japan and China, and he said they all reaffirmed a commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. At the United Nations, the U.S. proposed stringent sanctions, including a trade ban on military and luxury items, the power to inspect all cargo entering or leaving the country, and freezing assets connected with its weapons programs.
While concerned that North Korea could use a nuclear weapon offensively, the United States is equally worried about it selling nuclear materials or weapons to others. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for as few as four and as many as a dozen nuclear bombs.
Bush said that North Korea already is one of the world's leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria.
"The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States," Bush said in a brief statement in the diplomatic reception room at the White House. "And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action."
North Korea has been a major security problem for successive U.S. administrations. In 2002 the Bush administration accused the North of reneging on a 1994 nuclear freeze agreement by secretly undertaking a uranium enrichment program. That agreement became inoperative, and in the ensuing months, a defiant North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and ended the nuclear freeze.
In 2003, the United States joined with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in an effort to negotiate the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic concessions. There have been no negotiations since November 2005 because of what Pyongyang describes as hostile U.S. policies.
Democrats condemned North Korea's actions and cited the reported test as evidence that Bush's foreign policy strategy is ineffective. They point to six-party talks with the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea that have stalled and so far failed to quell North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, said the Bush administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea, and has tried to downplay the issue.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the House Bipartisan Taskforce on Nonproliferation, said the test might have been avoided if the Bush administration had been more willing to fully engage North Korea diplomatically. "The Bush administration has spent six years without a coherent North Korea policy, leaving the United States rudderless in the face of Pyongyang's brinkmanship," he said.
Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats are acting as if Bush, not North Korea, is the enemy. He said Democrats have attacked Bush for having a go-it-alone strategy in Iraq and criticize his multilateral approach to North Korea.
"The Democrats need to take a deep breath and realize that this is not about the election, and that Americans don't want anyone playing partisan politics with the threat of nuclear weapons. Rather than attack the president, we ought to be coming together to support his efforts to protect America," he said.