WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration walked a diplomatic tightrope Monday, talking of energy assistance and other help for North Korea while insisting such tantalizing prospects wouldn't be a prize for Pyongyang's increasing bellicose behavior.
The administration argued this fine point: that talking with North Korea about its willingness to back off its nuclear weapons programs is different from negotiating over what the impoverished nation would get in return.
It also asserted that quick and verifiable action was required from North Korea before any would be taken by the United States.
"North Korea wants to take the world through its blackmail playbook, and we won't play," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
The communist country withdrew from the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last week and has threatened to resume long-range missile tests and to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor to make atomic bombs.
The standoff began last fall when the United States said North Korea had acknowledged a secret nuclear weapons program. In response, the United States suspended fuel shipments. Then North expelled U.N. inspectors, made monitoring difficult by removing cameras and seals at its facilities and said it reactivated its Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
An American envoy meeting in Seoul, South Korea, responding to the escalating situation by saying the United States is willing to consider energy aid -- if Pyongyang ends nuclear weapons development.
"Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area," Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told reporters.
Fleischer said Kelly's statement didn't represent "anything new" in the administration's policy, but merely added specificity to a joint statement last week by the United States, South Korea and Japan which held out hopes for improved relations.
The White House also said dangling the prospect of economic assistance does not run counter to Bush's vow not to reward threats.
"There is a perfect consistency here," the presidential spokesman said.
"North Korea needs to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in order to reap any benefits of responsible participation in the international community," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher added. "The issue is whether they're going to promptly and verifiably dismantle the uranium enrichment program. The issue is whether they're going to re-establish the monitoring, the seals, the cameras."
Over the last week, the White House's stance toward North Korea has seen subtle changes, with the United States first offering talks in the joint communique and now economic incentives.
All the while, the Bush administration has been buffeted by critics from both sides, with some pressing for engagement with North Korea to help diffuse the crisis and others urging against any appearance of capitulation.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Monday that the United States should not submit to North Korean threats, but must open negotiations.
"That's the only ball game in town," he said in an interview. "You're going to have to talk to them."
A bipartisan group of senators, meanwhile, advocated a more aggressive policy -- including regularly intercepting weapons shipments and enhancing the U.S. military posture in the region with troop reinforcements and exercises. Among other moves urged by legislation from Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, John McCain of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, plus Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, are a tough inspections regime to end sanctions.
"We should do nothing less in dealing with North Korea," Kyl said.
Also Monday, the president celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States with a tribute to the contributions of the Korean American community and the U.S. relationship with South Korea.