The United States said Thursday that U.N. sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear program are not an option for now.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Williamson said the Bush administration wants to pursue a diplomatic solution.

The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted on Wednesday to refer the North Korea nuclear issue to the Security Council, setting in motion a process which could lead to sanctions against North Korea which has said it would take as an act of war.

Williamson said the United States is waiting for the IAEA resolution to be referred to the council, which should happen soon.

"We'll deal with it in a systematic manner, and diplomatically, and we're pleased the IAEA acted, and we look forward to discussing and working the issue diplomatically here as the U.S. has been doing in the region for many weeks now," Williamson said.

Asked whether sanctions were a possibility in the near future, he replied, "It's not an issue right now."

Williamson said the United States would be discussing with the other 14 council members when to take up the North Korean issue.

The standoff began in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program. Washington suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. nuclear monitors, taking steps to restart frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The U.N. nuclear agency's 35-nation board declared North Korea in violation of its obligations under the treaty and other accords. Because the North has expelled U.N. inspectors, the agency "remains unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material" for weapons use, it said.

The board's decision came as U.S. intelligence officials warned Wednesday that Pyongyang has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States.

China gave tacit approval to the IAEA resolution. But Russia and Cuba refused to support it, saying a referral to the Security Council would detract from a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at easing the crisis.

"We think it's counterproductive," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday. "We think that in the absence of direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea other moves would not actually be promoting the solution. We think that any multilateral effort could help provided there is a direct dialogue."

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency would continue to press for a peaceful solution, but he said months of intransigence on the part of North Korea's reclusive communist regime had left the U.N. nuclear watchdog no choice.

Germany's U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, the current Security Council president, said Thursday he had not yet received a letter from the IAEA. Once he receives it, he said he would consult council members and make a decision on when to put it on the agenda.

China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Yingfan, also speaking Wednesday, said: "We have to handle this. That's our responsibility. But how to, and when, I think we need some consultation among the council members."

Since the council is busy with Iraq, he said, "it might take some time practically" before the council considers North Korea.