WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday the United States is "looking for ways to communicate with the North Koreans" to ease the nuclear crisis, but will do nothing to help Pyongyang unless it changes its behavior.
"We have channels open," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We have ways of communicating with North Korea. They know how to contact us."
Powell, making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, seemed to present a subtle change in the administration's tone by holding out the prospect for talks and stressing that military action is not being contemplated. President Bush has prohibited negotiations with Kim Jong Il's government while North Korea's nuclear program is active -- a policy that White House officials said Sunday had not changed.
"We cannot suddenly say, 'Gee we're so scared. Let's have a negotiation because we want to appease your misbehavior.' This kind of action cannot be rewarded," Powell said on NBC. "We are looking for ways to communicate with the North Koreans so some sense can prevail."
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell was referring to diplomatic channels open to North Korea, including the South and the United Nations. He said Bush policy is firm: There will be no negotiations or talks unless North Korea "changes its behavior," a phrase that is open to some interpretation.
It was unclear whether Powell was making a diplomatic distinction between "talks" and "negotiations." He announced that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will go to South Korea next month to talk to U.S. allies -- but not North Korea "at this time."
The problem, Powell said, is that North Korea is demanding concessions in exchange for ending its nuclear weapons program.
"What they want is not a discussion," Powell said on ABC's "This Week." "They want us to give them something for them to stop the bad behavior. What we can't do is enter into a negotiation right away where we are appeasing them."
Meanwhile, Democrats said the Bush administration deserved part of the blame for the crisis. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the president was wrong to have cut off talks with North Korea when he took office.
"We should not be afraid to talk," Levin said on ABC. "We're not going to negotiate giving them anything for doing what they already promised to do, but they should hear from our lips how significant their missteps have been. We're not going to appease them but there's nothing wrong with talking to them."
Powell, however, said North Korea had restarted its nuclear weapons program during the Clinton administration, which the United States learned about last October.
"This program was not started during the Bush administration; it was started during the previous administration," Powell said on ABC. "We inherited this problem."
Unless North Korea stops its nuclear program, the Bush administration is ready to dramatically intensify economic pressure on Pyongyang through Asian allies and the United Nations.
"This is a country that's in desperate condition," Powell said. "What are they going to do with another two or three more nuclear weapons when they're starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that's functioning?"
Powell said the United States has no plans to attack North Korea.
"We are not planning a pre-emptive strike," Powell said. "The United States has a full range of capabilities ... but we are not trying to create a crisis atmosphere at this point by threatening North Korea."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the House International Relations Committee, said Saturday that U.S. officials should not rule out military action. "That strengthens our diplomatic hand, that we always retain the possibility of military action," King said.
But House International Relations Committee chairman Jim Leach warned against war on the Korean peninsula.
"We have to be exceptionally cautious in our actions toward North Korea and in our rhetoric describing the situation," said Leach, R-Iowa. "We should not give the implication that there is a distinct prospect that the United States will invade. The issue should be containment, not invasion. If the north perceives us as a country likely to invade, it has a different mindset than if they perceive us as a country committed to contain."
AP White House Correspondent Ron Fournier contributed to this story from Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing.