SEOUL, South Korea – A top U.S. envoy said Wednesday he was rounding up enough support for the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to refer the North Korea crisis to the U.N. Security Council, and he expected a referral as early as the end of this week.
Such a move would likely infuriate North Korea, which insists that its nuclear dispute is purely with Washington and does not involve other parties. It has repeatedly spoken out against taking the matter before the global body.
The Security Council could consider leveling economic or political sanctions against North Korea, a move Pyongyang says is tantamount to war.
In Seoul stumping for support, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said South Korean officials had agreed on taking the matter before the Security Council.
"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 said the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors could pass its third resolution on the subject and refer the matter to the Security Council this week "if we see a consensus emerging."
Bolton said that aside from South Korea, France, Britain and most likely Russia would support such a move. In Beijing earlier this week, Bolton said China voiced no opposition.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told The Associated Press in Vienna that "no decision has yet been taken" on whether to refer the dispute to the Security Council, but that the agency's 35-nation board of governors was closely monitoring the situation.
"The matter is still subject to intense consultations among key members of the board and the director-general," Gwozdecky said. "If there isn't movement on the part of North Korea, ultimately this will have to go to the Security Council.
"I think by the end of the week we will certainly have a better lay of the land," he said.
The development came as the two Koreas opened high-level talks in Seoul Wednesday that South Korean officials hoped would address tension over the North's nuclear program.
North Korean officials said that they have no intention of making nuclear weapons and repeated Pyongyang's position that the standoff can be resolved through dialogue with the United States, South Korean officials said.
"We made it clear that inter-Korean relations could be hurt unless the nuclear issue is not resolved promptly," South Korean delegate Rhee Bong-jo said after the one-hour session. "North Korea stressed that it has no intention of making nuclear weapons."
The Cabinet-level talks, along with three other sets of inter-Korean meetings this week, continue contacts started by a North-South summit in June 2000. They are the highest-level regular contacts between the two countries.
South Korea's chief delegate, Jeong Se-hyun, demanded in a keynote speech that the North freeze its nuclear facilities and reverse its decision to quit the global nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Rhee told reporters.
The chief North Korean negotiator, Kim Ryong Song, accused the United States of aggravating the standoff by refusing to deal directly with his country, he said.
Rhee said South Korea will continue to raise the issue during the remainder of the talks, which continue through Friday.
There were no more formal meetings scheduled for Wednesday, though informal contacts were expected. The North Koreans later visited an amusement park in southern Seoul.
The North Koreans arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for the first Cabinet-level talks since October, hinting that they wanted to focus on inter-Korean reconciliation projects rather than the nuclear issue. "Let's ... concentrate on resolving internal issues," said Kim, the North Korean negotiator.
On Wednesday, Kim called for better cooperation with South Korea to prevent "self-destruction" of the Korean peninsula. It's North Korea's long-standing strategy to drive a wedge between South Korea and its key ally, the United States.
"The North and South should cooperate to avoid the threat of war at a time of acute confrontation surrounding the Korean peninsula, and to protect peace and stability of our nation," he said.
Tensions escalated in October when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North and Pyongyang responded by expelling U.N. inspectors and preparing to reactivate facilities from an older nuclear program.
South Korea is in an awkward position, trying to coax North Korea into abandoning its nuclear activities even though U.S. officials have shown a distaste for dialogue with the North. But the United States has softened its position recently, saying it is willing to talk and would consider economic aid for the North if it gives up its nuclear plans.