The United States said Thursday that it would not call for punishing U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear program, a move Pyongyang had said would be an act of war.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Williamson said President Bush's administration wants to pursue a diplomatic solution for the time being.
The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted on Wednesday to refer the North Korea nuclear issue to the Security Council, setting in motion a process that could lead to sanctions against the North.
Williamson said the United States was waiting for the IAEA resolution to be referred to the council, which should happen soon.
"We'll deal with it in a systematic manner, and diplomatically, and we're pleased the IAEA acted, and we look forward to discussing and working the issue diplomatically here as the U.S. has been doing in the region for many weeks now," Williamson said.
Asked whether sanctions were a possibility in the near future, he replied, "It's not an issue right now."
Williamson said the United States would be discussing with the other 14 council members when to take up the North Korean issue.
The standoff began in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program. Washington suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. nuclear monitors, taking steps to restart frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The U.N. nuclear agency's 35-nation board declared North Korea in violation of its obligations under the treaty and other accords. Because the North has expelled U.N. inspectors, the agency "remains unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material" for weapons use, it said.
The board's decision came as U.S. intelligence officials warned Wednesday that Pyongyang has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States.
China gave tacit approval to the IAEA resolution. But Russia and Cuba refused to support it, saying a referral to the Security Council would detract from a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at easing the crisis.
"We think it's counterproductive," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday. "We think that in the absence of direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea other moves would not actually be promoting the solution. We think that any multilateral effort could help provided there is a direct dialogue."
North Korea has called for talks with the United States, but the Bush administration wanted the issue referred to the Security Council to show that it was an international issue — not just a dispute between Washington and Pyongyang.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer praised the IAEA action on Wednesday, calling it a "clear indication that the international community will not accept North Korea's nuclear program." He said the conflict pits North Korea against the world, not just the United States.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency would continue to press for a peaceful solution, but he said months of intransigence on the part of North Korea's reclusive communist regime had left the U.N. nuclear watchdog no choice.
Diplomats said the most likely outcome, since the United States is not pursuing sanctions, would be some kind of Security Council statement on the North Korean nuclear issue.