Washington is keeping "all options" open in dealing with North Korea, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea said Friday, underlining a potentially widening divide with the incoming government in Seoul over the possible use of military force.
The comments come just days ahead of a visit to South Korea by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is briefly shifting focus from Iraq to the standoff over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program.
"We want to resolve the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program through diplomacy and dialogue. Prudence, however, requires that we keep all options available," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard said during a speech at a Heritage Foundation seminar.
South Korean president-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office next week, outspokenly opposes "even consideration" of any military option to resolve the nuclear dispute. He warned this week that he was "willing to differ with the United States" if it meant war could be avoided.
During a similar standoff with North Korea over its nuclear development in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton was close to ordering an attack on the North's nuclear facilities. That crisis was eventually solved peacefully with promises of aid if Pyongyang froze its nuclear activities.
Underlining the renewed tension, a North Korean fighter jet briefly intruded South Korean airspace Thursday — forcing South Korean jets to scramble in response and putting a Southern missile battery on high alert.
On Friday, the U.S.-led U.N. Command monitoring the cease-fire on the southern side of the border was also investigating another possible armistice violation. It claimed a North Korean soldier stepped across the line separating sides at the neutral border village of Panmunjom.
The current nuclear dispute gathered pace in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a covert nuclear program.
Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, restarting frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed to refer the case to the Security Council, which could potentially impose sanctions on North Korea.
On Tuesday, North Korea threatened to abandon the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War if the United States went ahead with sanctions or other actions against the communist country.
The North previously has vowed to treat renewed sanctions as acts of war. The United States has not said it will seek sanctions now, but published reports indicate it is devising bans on North Korean weapons sales and the flow of cash from expatriate firms back to the North. Those measures could be implemented if the crisis escalates.
North Korea claims its nuclear development is justified because of U.S. moves it considers threatening: suspending talks for the first few months of the Bush administration; including North Korea in an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq, the target of looming war; advocating a doctrine of preemptive strikes; listing North Korea as a country where the use of nuclear weapons may have to be considered; and announcing plans to deploy a missile defense aimed mainly at blocking North Korean missiles.
For those reasons, the North says, it wants the United States to sign a non-aggression pact.
The United States has said before that it wants to settle the nuclear dispute diplomatically and has assured the North that it has no plans for an attack.
But President Bush has also refused to rule out the military option, prompting repeated accusations from North Korea that Washington is intending to invade.
The North's official Radio Pyongyang said again Friday that the United States was deliberately fermenting suspicions about North Korea's nuclear development to justify an attack
"The purpose of the U.S. raising the nuclear suspicion is to crush us by coming up with an excuse to wage a nuclear war against the North," said the broadcast, as monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
To formulate a regional approach toward North Korea, Powell is to travel to Japan and China in coming days before arriving in South Korea to attend Roh's inauguration Tuesday.
The United States has pushed for an international effort to resolve the crisis. North Korea, supported to some extent by China and other countries, wants bilateral talks with Washington.