South Korea's president-elect said Wednesday he would oppose any consideration of U.S. military action to force North Korea to halt its suspected nuclear weapons development.
President Bush has said he prefers a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear activities, but has also maintained that "all options are on the table."
Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office on Feb. 25, told members of the Korean Chamber of Commerce that he was "willing to differ with the United States," his country's No. 1 ally, "if that helps prevent war."
"An attack on North Korea could trigger a war engulfing the entire Korean Peninsula," Roh said. "It's a serious issue, and at this moment I am against even consideration of such an option."
South Korea would likely suffer devastation in any war with North Korea because Seoul lies within artillery range of communist guns on the border. At the same time, many South Koreans don't view North Korea as a serious military threat and believe the United States is exacerbating tensions more than North Korea.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun told the National Assembly on Wednesday that the North's 1.1 million-member army was busy with annual winter training, "increasing its readiness."
Lee did not rule out the possibility that North Korea might further escalate tensions by resuming missile tests, but said the situation in the North was subdued in comparison to a similar nuclear crisis in 1994, when North Korea declared a state of war and moved much of its population into underground shelters.
North Korea said Wednesday its recent moves to escalate the nuclear standoff were made in "self-defense," and accused Washington of "pushing the situation to the phase of confrontation" by refusing to sign a nonaggression treaty.
North Korea is "now taking bold measures" to revive its moribund economy, an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the North's official news agency, KCNA.
"It is only the U.S. that does not wish to see our socialist system make progress and our country prosper and is desperately working to hamstring its efforts," the spokesman said. The North faces widespread food and energy shortages -- problems widely blamed on the failure of its centrally planned economy and devastating droughts and floods.
North Korea's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, warned Wednesday that U.S. military pressure could trigger a "catastrophic explosion."
"The U.S. warmongers should know that it is easy for them to provoke a war against us but it is impossible to survive the war," said the communist paper in a report carried by the North's KCNA news agency.
Despite the tensions, 500 South Koreans will travel on a newly built cross-border road on Thursday for reunions with relatives they have not seen since the Korean War. The three-day reunions are the sixth of their kind since a North-South summit in 2000.
The nuclear standoff began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a covert nuclear program. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, taking steps to restart frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
North Korea says it is reactivating its facilities to generate badly needed electricity, but U.S. officials say the equipment could be used to produce atomic bombs.
North Korea's recent moves to restart its nuclear facilities have been widely viewed as attempts to pressure Washington into direct negotiations on a nonaggression pact.
On Tuesday, North Korea accused the United States of plotting an attack and threatened to withdraw from the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War and has kept an uneasy peace along its heavily fortified border with South Korea.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the North's threat to abandon the armistice is part of a series of North Korean statements, "all of which only serve to hurt, isolate and move North Korea backward."
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently found North Korea in breach of its commitments on nuclear programs and referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council.