SEOUL, South Korea – In sharp differences with Washington, South Korea said North Korea does not have nuclear weapons and the United States should open direct talks with Pyongyang on the crisis.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo told parliament Monday there is no proof the North has produced nuclear weapons despite U.S. assertions that Pyongyang has one or two atomic bombs.
"North Korea is believed to have extracted enough plutonium to make one or two bombs before 1994," Kim said. "Since there has been no confirmation that it actually has produced nuclear weapons, we believe that they do not have any."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday in Germany that most intelligence services know the North Koreans have "one or two nuclear weapons" and "they may have enough nuclear material to make an additional six to eight nuclear weapons" by May or June.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung asked for the European Union's cooperation in peacefully resolving the crisis. He made the request during a meeting with the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
North Korea has said it has the right to develop nuclear weapons and wants bilateral talks with the United States. The United States says the North must meet its international obligations, including an accord with South Korea that the peninsula would be kept free of nuclear weapons.
South Korea, too, wants direct U.S.-Pyongyang discussions. Returning from a visit to the United States on Sunday, Chyung Dai-chul, an envoy of South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, said he "asked Washington to open direct U.S.-North Korea talks soon without condition."
But in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington would eventually talk with North Korea but it should be within a "multilateral setting."
"We should not let North Korea dictate the terms under which these conversations take place. I think there will ultimately be conversations, but I think other nations have a role to play," Powell said on Fox News Sunday.
Powell cited China's possible role in defusing the tension. China, a traditional ally of North Korea, wants the Korean Peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons.
"Half their foreign aid goes to North Korea," Powell said. "Eighty percent of North Korea's wherewithal, with respect to energy and economic activity, comes from China. China has a role to play, and I hope China will play that role."
However, China's ties with North Korea have waned over the years. Also, China likely is mindful that economic pressure on North Korea could send more destitute North Koreans across the border, leading to a humanitarian crisis on Chinese soil.
In other developments, U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker warned in Tokyo of a possible North Korean missile test over Japan in what could be an effort to increase tension over the North's nuclear programs. North Korea alarmed the region by firing a rocket over Japan and into the Pacific in 1998.
In Pyongyang on Monday, an envoy of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri met North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, the North's state-run KCNA news agency said.
The envoy, Nana Sutresna, conveyed a personal letter from Megawati to the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, said the KCNA report.
The report gave no further details but the Indonesian government said earlier that the envoy would urge North Korea to resolve the nuclear dispute with the United States.
The crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs began in October when U.S. officials said North Korean officials admitted they had a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Washington and its allies then suspended oil shipments, and North Korea responded by taking steps to reactivate nuclear facilities frozen under a 1994 energy deal with the United States.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to refer the dispute to the U.N. Security Council at a board meeting Wednesday, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said. The council could consider economic and political sanctions.
"It seems like that is the most likely scenario," Fleming said.
North Korea has criticized efforts to bring the nuclear dispute to the U.N. Security Council, saying the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions is between the North and the United States only.
President George W. Bush believes the standoff can be resolved peacefully, but he said Friday that "all options are on the table," suggesting that Washington would consider military action.
North Korea accuses the United States of inciting the current nuclear tension as a pretext to invade the communist country.
Despite the nuclear crisis, a North Korean delegation was to arrive in Seoul Tuesday for talks on economic exchanges.