The United Nations nuclear agency Wednesday reported North Korea to the Security Council for violating international obligations on nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board of governors approved the move — which could lead to the imposition of sanctions — despite North Korean threats to treat new sanctions as acts of war.
The White House hailed the IAEA vote, with spokesman Ari Fleischer saying it demonstrated this is not a bilateral issue — but a dispute between North Korea and the world.
Russia, however, fears the decision could inflame the region.
"In the current crisis situation on the Korean peninsula, it would be counterproductive and capable only of provoking a negative reaction from Pyongyang," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said Wednesday. Russia and Cuba abstained from the vote.
Elsewhere, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday that North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States, echoing CIA reports of the past four years.
The current crisis began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted having a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.
The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the impoverished communist country. North Korea in turn expelled IAEA inspectors, disabled the agency's monitoring cameras, withdrew from a global nuclear arms-control treaty and said it would reactivate its main nuclear complex, frozen since 1994.
The nuclear agency's board was expected to refer the dispute to the Security Council at its last emergency meeting on Jan. 6. Instead, hoping to give diplomacy a final chance to ease the standoff, the agency urged North Korea to seek a diplomatic solution and reverse its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Wednesday's meeting originally was set for Feb. 3 but was postponed at the urging of South Korea, which has launched an all-out diplomatic effort to ease tensions on the populous peninsula.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's chief, said the IAEA would continue to work for a diplomatic end to the crisis. "It was the unanimous view of all the board members that we're looking for a peaceful resolution," ElBaradei told reporters.
Formally reporting North Korea to the Security Council is a grave diplomatic step opening the way for economic sanctions or other punitive measures against the country. But it was unclear whether the council would support such action.
The United States has not specifically said it would seek sanctions, and continues to press hard for a diplomatic solution. Russia and China, two permanent Security Council members with veto power, are seen as unlikely to back sanctions.
The North accuses the United States, which maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea, of using concerns over nuclear weaponry as a pretext to invade.
It cites President Bush's labeling of the country as a member of the "axis of evil," his plans to deploy a missile defense system aimed at blocking North Korean rockets, and his new doctrine of preemptive strikes as reasons for North Korea to fear an American invasion.
North Korea has requested one-on-one talks with the United States, as well as a non-aggression pact. Washington has tried to internationalize the negotiations. But China said this week that direct U.S.-North Korean talks were essential.
Some analysts have suggested that economically troubled North Korea is restarting its nuclear program either to get more outside aid or produce weapons material it can sell.
The country suffers from continued food shortages. But the United States is delaying its 2003 food pledges for North Korea amid "credible" reports that food is being diverted to the North's soldiers and political elite, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
The North Korean missile apparently capable of striking the United States is a three-stage version of the Taepo Dong 2, said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
It has not been flight-tested, Jacoby said, leaving some questions about North Korea's capability to successfully launch the missile.
The CIA has reported since at least 1999 that the Taepo Dong 2 missile could hit America. In December 2001, the agency said that a Taepo Dong 2 "capable of reaching parts of the United States with a nuclear weapon-sized payload may be ready for flight-testing."
Fleischer said U.S. concerns about North Korean missiles were among the reasons for Mr. Bush's missile defense plan.