The top U.S. military commander in South Korea said Tuesday he has not requested reinforcements, despite a deepening crisis over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons development.
Gen. Leon J. LaPorte made the statement after U.S. officials in Washington said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula and adding bombers in Guam.
The moves are intended to deter the North from provocations during any U.S. war with Iraq, the Pentagon officials said.
LaPorte said he does not expect any immediate change in his troop level, which currently stands at 37,000.
"We did not request additional forces," LaPorte said in response to a question from South Korean media. "If we do, we will consult with the (South Korean) Ministry of National Defense and then refer to the Pacific Command."
LaPorte did not respond to U.S. media reports that the Pentagon has decided to dispatch additional B-1 bombers and F-16 fighter jets to the western Pacific in a show of force against North Korea.
But he said, "We at (U.S.-South Korea) Combined Forces Command continually monitor all situations on the peninsula and maintain a readiness level to ensure deterrence and preserve the peace of the Korean Peninsula."
North Korea responded sharply to the reported U.S. moves to beef up its military presence in the region, calling it an attempt to destroy the North.
"In an attempt to crush us to death, the U.S. military is scheming to beef up forces in Japan and South Korea," said the North's Central Radio, monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reviewed a naval unit at an undisclosed location Monday and was greatly satisfied with its combat readiness, the North's state-run KCNA news agency said.
Kim commended the sailors, calling them "invincible fighters" armed with "the spirit of becoming human bombs and the spirit of blowing oneself up as their invariable faith," it said.
North Korea's media routinely churn out anti-U.S. invective but it has become more frequent and intense since the nuclear dispute erupted in October, when U.S. officials said the North had admitted having a nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact with Washington.
As punishment, the United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea in December. The North then took steps to restart another nuclear program, expelled U.N. monitors and withdrew from a global nuclear arms control treaty.
Impoverished North Korea has been dependent on outside aid since 1995 to help feed its 22 million people. More than 2 million North Koreans are believed to have died of hunger or hunger-related diseases in the late 1990s.
On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for urgent funds to avert "a major humanitarian crisis" in North Korea and create better conditions to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff.
North Korea has accused Washington of escalating the standoff as a pretext for an invasion. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. President George W. Bush still believes the standoff can be resolved peacefully.
While trying to resolve the nuclear dispute through diplomacy, the United States wants to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council, which could consider sanctions against the North.
In Vienna, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that its 35-nation board of governors will meet Feb. 12 to discuss the nuclear standoff.
The meeting could refer the dispute to the Security Council. But Russia said Tuesday that would be counterproductive.
"As before, we still believe that the possibility for diplomatic dialogue between the interested sides is not exhausted," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko as saying.
"In this connection, submitting the question about North Korea to the U.N. Security Council now would be counterproductive," it quoted him as saying.
In a move intended to limit damage to inter-Korean ties, South Korean state prosecutors decided Monday to shelve an investigation into an alleged payoff scandal surrounding an inter-Korean summit in 2000 — a decision that drew angry protests from opposition politicians.
The main opposition Grand National Party introduced a bill in the National Assembly on Tuesday to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the alleged scandal.
Opposition lawmakers claim money — possibly from South Korea's government — was given to the North ahead of the summit as payment for the talks, a crowning achievement for outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
Government auditors confirmed last Thursday that the Hyundai business group had spent $186 million in the North. But they said the purposes of the expenditures were unclear.