China and Russia insisted Thursday that the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program should be resolved through direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang, even though the issue is now before the U.N. Security Council.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency referred the North Korea nuclear dispute to the Security Council on Wednesday with the tacit approval of China, which holds a seat on the agency's board of governors. Russia and Cuba opposed the move.
As CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, the Security Council could impose sanctions, but the North claims that would be an act of war. U.N. sources tell CBS News that sanctions are not in the cards and they would be "a bad idea".
The White House applauded the move.
"We plan to work closely with members of the Security Council and other friends and allies toward a shared objective of the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible manner," Spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the nuclear agency's decision was a "premature and counterproductive move that doesn't help to establish a constructive and trusting dialogue between the interested parties."
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said, "We hope that the North Korea issue can still have a political settlement by means of the two sides talking. We hope the international community can be more patient."
Beijing's doubts could be decisive: The Bush administration is concerned that its goal of a denuclearized North Korea may not be possible unless China uses diplomatic leverage to force a retreat by Pyongyang.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that China accounts for 80 percent of the foreign assistance North Korea receives.
"We don't see any way in which we can get the North Koreans to move without China's help," John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, said.
North Korea did not immediately respond to the nuclear agency's decision.
On Thursday, North Korea said the will of its leader, Kim Jong Il, "is growing stronger with the situation getting acute on the Korean Peninsula."
The dispute began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. nuclear monitors, restarting frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The head of North Korea's diplomatic representation in Germany, Pak Hyon Bo, told the German daily Financial Times Deutschland on Wednesday that his country will not respect any resolutions or suggestions by the Security Council.
"We are no longer a member of the Non-Proliferation treaty," Pak said.
Pyongyang sees its nuclear programs essentially as a bilateral issue with the United States and has said the two sides should deal with it in discussions leading to a nonaggression treaty. The Bush administration has shown no interest in a bilateral approach.
North Korea engaged in talks with South Korea on Thursday aimed at promoting economic exchanges and setting up a reunion center for families separated by the peninsula's division in 1945.
South Korea said it sought a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute.
"We hope the U.N. Security Council can prevent the situation from deteriorating and can handle the issue in a way that encourages a diplomatic solution," said the South Korean Foreign Ministry in a statement.
U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, said Wednesday that Pyongyang has an untested ballistic missile capable of hitting the western United States and possibly targets farther inland. That capability had been predicted in CIA reports dating back to at least 1999.
The North Korean weapon is a three-stage version of its Taepo Dong 2 missile, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told reporters. CIA Director George Tenet, who joined Jacoby before the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that North Korea has a missile that can at least reach the West Coast.
However, U.S. intelligence officials said later North Korea has demonstrated no new missile capabilities in the last year. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the statements were based on the same information that led U.S. intelligence to conclude a few years ago that North Korea was close to being able to flight-test a three-stage Taepo Dong 2.
Without flight-testing, the reliability of such a missile is questionable. For several years, North Korea has held to a voluntary moratorium on flight tests of its long-range missiles.