SEOUL, South Korea – Despite criticism of its efforts to engage North Korea, South Korea asserted Thursday that dialogue is the best way to deal with concerns about the communist state's nuclear weapons program.
The statement came after the United States said North Korea admitted it was in defiance of a 1994 pledge to disavow nuclear weapons and was developing a weapons program.
Other South Korean officials said North Korea's confession may be a sign that it wants to resolve the problem through negotiations rather than confrontation. They planned to raise the issue in Cabinet-level talks this weekend with North Korea, which has yet to comment.
The admission left South Korea in a quandary. The two nations have worked with one another to improve their relationship, most recently undertaking the construction of cross-border roads and railways.
"Our basic position is that any problems with North Korea should be resolved through dialogue," said Han Sang-il, chief spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry.
But news of the weapons program could amplify criticism of President Kim Dae-jung, whose efforts to reach out to North Korea won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
South Korea's political opposition, whose leader, Lee Hoi-chang, is the front-runner ahead of a presidential vote Dec. 19, said a crisis was at hand.
He said the admission should lead to a review of Kim's "sunshine" policy of engagement.
"It's shocking and shatters the very foundation of U.S.-North Korean relations, as well as inter-Korean relations," said Nam Gyung-pil of the opposition Grand National Party.
Kim, who is not eligible for re-election, has been accused by political foes of pandering to North Korea, yielding economic and other perks and getting little in return.
For South Koreans who live within range of North Korean artillery, the news was another reminder of their vulnerability.
South Koreans have viewed the threat of conflict with North Korea as routine ever since the 1950-53 Korean War. Most men serve as long as 26 months in the military, and anti-aircraft guns sit atop some high-rise buildings in the capital, Seoul.
U.S. and South Korean commanders are confident they can defeat North Korea in an armed conflict, but it is likely Seoul would be devastated by artillery barrage in the early hours of a conflict. Approximately 37,000 American troops are in South Korea.
Although it has more than 1 million soldiers, the North Korean military is desperately short of fuel and modern equipment.
But some were skeptical that North Korea would use a nuclear bomb because doing so would invite a devastating retaliation. There was also concern that President Bush's willingness to use military force in Iraq might be applied to the Korean peninsula.
"I am worried about how this is handled by Bush, who may take a tougher stance on the North," said Kim Ji-ah, an office worker in Seoul, which lies just 40 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, a mine-laced buffer that divides the Koreas.
"A confrontation on the Korean peninsula, between the North and the United States, does no good for our country, and for our economy, because we live so closely to the North," she said.
Bush called the revelation about North Korea "troubling, sobering news," a spokesman said Thursday. But it was unclear how Washington planned to handle North Korea while immersed in preparations for a possible campaign against Iraq, as well as a global war on terrorism.
The United States also suspects that North Korea has chemical and biological weapons programs, and said it is the No. 1 exporter of missile technology in the world.
The high point of Kim's sunshine policy came in 2000 when he flew to Pyongyang for a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The euphoria of those days has faded, although recent North Korean overtures to the outside world again raised hopes that it was prepared to change, possibly in hopes of acquiring economic aid for its shattered economy.
North Korea's confession came during a visit to Pyongyang this month by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who raised concerns about the North's weapons programs.
The revelation was surprising because North Korea recently embarked on what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to improve ties with South Korea, Japan and the United States. It has also introduced economic reforms that analysts say will be hard to reverse.
"In light of what North Korea is facing at the moment, economically and politically, I think it is very hard to say North Korea is really ready to defy the U.S.," said Kim Sung-han of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a state-run research center in Seoul.
The sunshine policy has been vulnerable to swings in U.S.-North Korean animosity since Bush took office early last year, most notably when he called the North part of an "axis of evil" in January.
"The South also should show that there is a limit to its patience in dealing with the North. We gave all those things in aid and the North is still developing a nuclear bomb?" said 59-year-old Kim Byung-kook, a former construction worker.
"But I am not particularly worried because I don't think anybody involved wants a war," he said.