Bush pledges diplomacy over missile tests

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"We want to solve this problem diplomatically, and the best way to solve this problem diplomatically is for all of us to be working in concert," he told reporters at the White House after a flurry of telephone calls to the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

All are participants in the six-nation talks with North Korea, which have been stalled for months. But despite a shared disapproval of Pyongyang's launch of seven missiles this week, its five partners disagreed how to respond.

"Diplomacy takes a while," Mr Bush said after a meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. "We're taking time... making sure that our voice is unified."

The divisions were evident at discussions within the UN Security Council over a Japanese-sponsored resolution that would impose sanctions on North Korea, despite claims by John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, that the draft document had "broad and deep support". Like Toyko, Washington backs economic sanctions.

But Russia has does not, at least not now. Its preference is for a non-binding statement aimed at restarting the six-nation talks. President Vladimir Putin merely described the missile tests as "disappointing". China, the country with probably the most influence over the regime of Kim Jong Il, also opposes sanctions. So does South Korea, which has long been trying to boost humanitarian ties with the North. Seoul is against any steps that could worsen the hardships of the ordinary population, and urges "patient dialogue" with its northern neighbour.

Mr Bush's comments were a tacit acknowledgement that in US dealings with this member of the "axis of evil", he has few decent options. Diplomatic contacts have been at a halt since last year. The Pentagon long ago concluded that a military strike against North Korea's missile and nuclear sites would almost certainly provoke a devastating war on the Korean peninsula.

The US insists it will consider security guarantees and increased economic aid only when Pyongyang has halted its nuclear weapons programme. North Korea says it will do this only when solid security guarantees are in place.

Instead, Washington has been playing down the importance of the missile firings, a task made easier by the apparent failure of the most important test, of the longer range Taepodong 2, capable of reaching parts of the US. The missile apparently flew for only a minute before falling into the Sea of Japan.

North Korea is as truculent as ever. A government statement insisted the country was perfectly entitled to conduct the tests, as part of its right to self-defence. The widespread assumption is that Pyongyang is angling for the world's attention, in the hope of reviving the six-nation talks. But there is general agreement that the Communist state should receive no reward for its intransigence.

The South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo quoted a Seoul official as saying the North may be planning to launch three or four more intermediate-range missiles.

NBC News, citing unnamed US officials, said preparations seemed to be under way for a second Taepodong test, although the weapon was not yet at the launch-pad.