Any U.S. military reprisal against North Korea for attempting to restart an atomic weapons program would be "very inadvisable," the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said Pyongyang most likely would retaliate against South Korea in a confrontation that "would be devastating."
Appearing on NBC's "Today" program, Lugar said "our strategy now has to be one of multilateral engagement" with other nations, such as Japan, China, Russia, which have a stake in continued peace on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea froze its plutonium-based nuclear program in 1994 in exchange for foreign energy supplies. Earlier this month, however, the United States and its allies halted oil shipments as punishment for revelations in October that North Korea had moved forward with a second nuclear weapons program that used enriched uranium.
North Korea followed that up by announcing that it planned to restart its nuclear facilities to get electricity.
The United States has a number of options, including playing the military card. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that "we are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts.
Rumsfeld stressed that no military action against Pyongyang was imminent, however.
Appearing Thursday with Lugar on the NBC show, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who will be the ranking Democrat on the foreign affairs panel when Congress returns in January, also urged a cautious U.S. response.
"There's one or two alternatives here," Biden said. "As Winston Churchill said, 'Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war' " The Delaware Democrat called that "a very, very daunting alternative."
Said Lugar" "Well, it is very inadvisable."
White House officials said Tuesday the United States intends to pursue a diplomatic course to persuade North Korea to abandon its efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal. Discussions on this matter are ongoing with China, Russia and other countries, the State Department said.
Lugar said the situation does not amount to an "imminent crisis" but said the United States has to work to cement its historical ties with South Korea in the wake of the recent presidential election there that carried anti-American tones.
"That relationship is critical," Lugar said, saying that Washington and Seoul must "try to get our own act together and make sure we have a common voice."
Biden said he believed "the first relationship we have to improve or deal with is North Korea. ... There's not many real good options here."
But he said U.S. officials must "determine what it is that is prompting this. What is their gambit? Most people think they're seeking a non-aggression pact."
Biden said the administration must decide whether the United States and other nations concerned about the latest developments there "can find a way to persuade the North Koreans to cease and desist."
"We're not directly in harm's way," Biden said. " ... My greater concern here is the nuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula."
Lugar said the North Korean government "if not unstable, is under great pressure economically" with a starving population.
Many people believe Pyongyang is trying to "get the attention of the United States and the rest of the world, to get them money, to get them assistance," he said.
"The question is, why are they doing this now," said Biden, "and is there a quote 'price' for them to give up their trump card that the international community should be willing to pay?"
"There could be a reasonable price for that," he added. But Biden also said Washington "could be left with no alternative but the type of tough talk the secretary of defense is using."
U.S. officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency said they suspected North Korea was trying to pressure Washington back to negotiations after President Bush cut off oil shipments to the energy-starved nation.
State Department spokesman Phil Reeker dampened that idea earlier this week, renewing his insistence that "we will not give in to blackmail."