South Korea rejected a proposal from the communist North to work together against the United States, and told Pyongyang on Thursday to stop saber-rattling.
But an aide to South Korea's President-elect Roh Moon-hyun said on Friday that Roh will present a compromise this month equiring both North Korea and the United States to make concessions to resolve the standoff.
Lim Chae-jung, head of the presidential transition team, declined to elaborate on the concessions, but said the president-elect is taking "a very cautious approach" because it is "a matter that affects the destiny of our people." Roh takes office on Feb. 25 and will meet President Bush in Washington soon afterward.
Bush on Thursday sharply rebuked North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, telling reporters in Texas that he has "no heart for somebody who starves his folks." But Bush said he remains confident in a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff.
In Seoul, South Korea Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said the North's leadership "should not attempt to test the limit of the patience of the international community."
Jeong, whose ministry handles inter-Korean affairs, said his government will use inter-Korean Cabinet-level talks later this month to urge North Korea to stop efforts to restart its nuclear facilities.
The meetings, which are the highest channels of dialogue between the two sides, will provide the first opportunity for South Korea to raise the nuclear issue directly with the North.
"The nuclear issue is a matter that affects the destiny of our people," Jeong said. "Therefore, we should actively search for a solution that can make all parties -- South and North Korea and related countries -- the winner."
Also Thursday, South Korea claimed critical Chinese support in its drive to speed diplomacy to end the crisis.
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-sik and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed in Beijing that their countries would try "to resolve North Korea's nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue," a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official said.
"The two sides will work to prevent the situation from further aggravating," said Shin Jung-seung, director of the ministry's Asia-Pacific affairs section.
At the United Nations, diplomats said Beijing wanted to deal privately with the situation through diplomatic channels rather than bringing it to the Security Council where Chinese diplomats could wind up -- because of the long-standing alliance with the North -- publicly defending Pyongyang.
Seoul has also acknowledged the desire of South Koreans for their government to assume a larger role in determining the outcome of the dangerous standoff and vowed to lead the campaign to damp down the confrontation with the isolated, Stalinist North.
"We must mobilize all our diplomatic resources to find a peaceful solution to the problem that is directly connected to our nation's stability and prosperity," said South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong.
In early December, North Korea alarmed the world by deciding to reactivate its plutonium-based nuclear program. It since has removed monitoring seals and cameras from its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, expelled U.N. inspectors who visually monitored those facilities and signaled it may quit the global nuclear arms control treaty.
The inspectors work for the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, which plans to hold an emergency board meeting Monday to decide whether to refer the North Korean actions to the U.N. Security Council.
While Washington has vowed to use diplomacy, the North suspects Washington eventually will use military force. And North Korea's state media said the country would not bend to U.S. pressure.
"If the U.S. tries to settle the issue with [North Korea] by force, [North Korea] has no idea of avoiding it," said the North's government newspaper, Minju Joson, in a report carried on the North's foreign news outlet, Korean Central News Agency.
It said the North's army was strong and ready to fight.
The North, sensing opportunity in widespread anti-American sentiment in South Korea, also urged the South on Wednesday to back its confrontation with the United States.
This emphasis on "cooperation" with South Korea comes at a time when Seoul is criticizing a possible U.S. plan to use economic sanctions to force North Korea to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
North Korea's overtures also are driven by economic needs, experts said.
South Korea, under President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engaging the North, has launched a series of unfinished inter-Korean projects, including a cross-border rail link and tourist and industrial parks, that would bring the impoverished North badly needed investment.
North Korea, which can hardly feed its 22 million people without outside relief, risks losing key sources of aid with its actions in recent weeks.