North Korea Warns U.N. of 'Prelude to War'

North Korea on Saturday warned that any moves to discuss its suspected nuclear weapons programs at the United Nations (search) would "hamstring" efforts for dialogue and be a "prelude to war."

The warning came a day after the communist country agreed to multilateral talks over the nuclear standoff. North Korea (search), fearful the United Nations may impose economic sanctions, has accused the world body of siding with the United States.

"The U.S. intention to bring up the nuclear issue ... at the U.N. at any cost is a grave criminal act to hamstring" North Korea's efforts at opening a dialogue, the official KCNA news agency said.

"Any move to discuss the nuclear issue at the U.N. Security Council (search) is little short of a prelude to a war," it said, reiterating past comments.

On Thursday, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton (search) criticized the Security Council, saying its credibility was at stake because it had failed to take up the North Korean nuclear issue.

The nuclear standoff began in October when U.S. officials said Pyongyang (search) admitted having a uranium-based nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements.

U.S. officials believe North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and can yield enough plutonium from its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to build several more within months.

China, the North's closest ally and a permanent member of the Security Council, had thwarted previous U.S. attempts to have the council condemn the North over its nuclear ambitions.

An early U.N. discussion of North Korea seems unlikely. Even South Korea, a U.S. ally, has said all diplomatic options should be exhausted before the Security Council considers the issue.

Washington long has pushed for multilateral talks on the issue, saying it wants Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs. North Korea has insisted on one-on-one talks with the United States, through which it hopes to win a security guarantee.

But North Korea on Friday agreed to multilateral talks, saying it would push for direct talks with the United States on the side. Washington said bilateral talks were a possibility.

The acceptance of an American proposal for a broader discussion involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia was seen as a concession.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Saturday that Beijing (search) was key to resolving the dispute.

"China more than any other country can exert long-term influence and long-term pressure on North Korea," he said.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Pyongyang might consider freezing its nuclear programs if multilateral talks go well and if it receives an assurance from the United States that it will not be attacked.

No date has been set for the talks, which are expected to be held in China, and no decision has been made on the level of the officials who will attend.

An unidentified official at South Korea's presidential office said talks could open "late this month or early next month," according to Seoul's Yonhap news agency.

The last time the United States and North Korea had official talks was in April in Beijing, but they have had unofficial talks in New York since then, via North Korean diplomats at the United Nations.