UNITED NATIONS – A top U.S. official said Wednesday he will push for the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear programs, even as a U.N. envoy said the North would consider sanctions "an act of war."
But Western diplomats on the Security Council said the issue likely will not come before them anytime soon since it still is being debated by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna, Austria.
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, in South Korea to rally support, said officials there agreed to take the nuclear issue before the Security Council. He also said Britain, France and most likely Russia would support such a move, and China had not voiced any opposition.
"It's not a question of if it goes before the Security Council, it's only a matter of time," Bolton said. "We hope it will get there by the end of this week." Bolton arrived in Tokyo on Thursday for a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi later in the day.
The International Atomic Energy Agency currently is debating whether to refer the matter to the council, an official said.
"If there isn't movement on the part of North Korea, ultimately this will have to go to the Security Council," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told The Associated Press. "I think by the end of the week we will certainly have a better lay of the land."
But a British delegate at the United Nations noted that the IAEA may postpone its Friday session.
Pyongyang insists its nuclear dispute is purely with Washington and does not involve other parties. It made that stance clear during recent talks with U.N. envoy Maurice Strong, a special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"They have even used the expression that they would regard action by the Security Council to impose sanctions or any similar punitive action as an act of war," Strong said after returning from Pyongyang and briefing Annan.
Asked if he would be reporting to the Security Council soon, Strong said, "I report to the secretary-general ... and he has not asked me to report to the Security Council."
The issue "is not on the Security Council agenda at this point."
"As you know, there are a lot of efforts going on, a lot of diplomatic efforts now under way, to deal with and seek a solution to the nuclear crisis. And, therefore, I think it would be inappropriate and unhelpful of me to be discussing it," Strong said.
Tensions escalated in October when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States. The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North, and Pyongyang responded by expelling U.N. inspectors and preparing to restart a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor to generate badly needed electricity.
Experts say the North's main nuclear complex at Yongbyon could produce several nuclear weapons within months. North Korea is believed to have produced two nuclear weapons already and experts say it has the resources to make another four or five within a few years.
Although the North says it has no such intention, it has quit a global nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
A pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan quoted a North Korean energy official Wednesday as saying the nuclear reactor at the center of the dispute will start generating electricity "within weeks."
The developments came as the two Koreas opened high-level talks in Seoul on Wednesday that South Korean officials hoped would address the nuclear tensions. The Cabinet-level talks were the first since October and continue contacts started by a North-South summit in June 2000.
At the opening of the talks, chief North Korean negotiator Kim Ryong Song accused the United States of aggravating the nuclear standoff by refusing to deal directly with his country, according to South Korean officials.
South Korea's chief delegate, Jeong Se-hyun, demanded that the North freeze its nuclear facilities and reverse its decision to quit the global treaty, South Korean delegate Rhee Bong-jo told reporters.
Kim, the North Korean negotiator, called for better cooperation with South Korea to prevent "self-destruction" of the Korean peninsula. It is North Korea's long-standing strategy to drive a wedge between South Korea and its key ally, the United States.
The talks continue through Friday.
In separate North South negotiations beginning Thursday in the Northern capital of Pyongyang, the leader of the South Korean reportedly urged the North to give up its nuclear weapons efforts.
"South Korea will never accept any North Korean nuclear weapons development, and the nuclear dispute should be resolved peacefully," Cho Myung-gyun was quoted by Southern pool media reports as saying in an opening speech at the talks.
At the United Nations, Strong also discussed the humanitarian and food aid North Korea depends upon. The West also provides fuel aid.
"This is a real crisis. It requires immediate action," Strong said.
But he added, "The North Koreans say as much as they need, and they clearly need, humanitarian assistance, they will not accept it if it is attached to political conditions."