Powell put North Korea high on
the US agenda for US

A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, quoted Powell as saying that there is “no issue of greater urgency” to the United States than Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Powell told the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) regional forum that Washington would not bend to what he said was North Korea’s “rhetoric” or “intimidation”. Powell vowed Washington would not back down on its insistence that other countries be involved in the dialogue, said the official.

Washington has dismissed North Korea’s suggestion of bilateral talks, insisting talks should include other parties.

“The sooner North Korea realizes this and agrees to an expanded multilateral forum, the sooner we may find a way to solve this problem,” said Powell, according to the official.

Multilateral talks rejected

North Korea rejected on Wednesday Washington’s moves towards multilateral talks. In a foreign ministry statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang accused Washington of trying to stifle it.

“We can no longer expect anything from multilateral talks that the United states is proposing,” said the statement.

In April, China hosted a three-way meeting with the United States and North Korea, but Washington wants at least Japan and South Korea to be included in future discussions.

The official said Powell had insisted the matter was not between the US and North Korea alone, but also involved other nations in the region.

Earlier, Pyongyang reiterated its right to possess nuclear weapons and said it would never accept US pressure to disarm prior to negotiations.

“The Iraqi war proved that disarmament leads to a war. Therefore, it is quite clear that (North Korea) can never accept the US demand that it scraps its nuclear weapons programme first,” said Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper in Pyongyang.

Powell said Washington was not looking for a conflict with North Korea, insisting Pyongyang’s fears were a “false claim”.

The Bush administration lumped North Korea, Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein as part of the “axis of evil”.