The U.N. nuclear agency Monday deplored North Korea's decision to resume its weapons program but gave the reclusive communist government a final chance to end its confrontation with the United States and other countries.
The unanimous decision by the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency gives diplomacy more time to defuse the rapidly escalating crisis. For the United States, which is focusing on a possible war with Iraq, the agency's decision not to immediately bring the matter to the U.N. Security Council also removes a distraction for the council, which will have to examine two key reports on Baghdad's suspected weapons programs when they land this month.
"North Korea has to come clean," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the nuclear watchdog. "There are two options for North Korea: 'Comply with your international obligations ... or continue defiance.'
"I think it is very important that every country understands that not through defiance of its international obligations can it get political gain or strategic advantage," he said. "It is through dialogue, but dialogue has to be based on respect for international rules.
"In brief, the board is giving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea one more chance to come into compliance," ElBaradei said after a three-hour emergency meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board in Vienna. Stressing that time was running out, he said that the deadline for North Korea to halt its nuclear program is "clearly a matter of weeks."
If North Korea does not act, the Security Council could impose sanctions or punish the Pyongyang government in other ways.
In Washington on Monday, Bush administration officials began two days of talks with high-level delegations from South Korea and Japan, both of which are within range of North Korean missiles and want to find a solution to the crisis before the communist regime can build more nuclear weapons.
Intelligence analysts believe that North Korea already has two nuclear bombs and could produce more within months.
The Bush administration praised the IAEA's position.
"The president views this as the appropriate course of action," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The nations involved in this decision today are very broad."
But North Korea remained defiant. Its official Korean Central News Agency charged Monday that the Bush administration is planning an attack.
"If the U.S. unleashes a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, it will not escape its destruction," the news agency said.
Today, in a report complaining about the United States' brief seizure of a shipload of North Korean missiles bound for Yemen last month, the agency said U.S. strategy "means total economic sanctions aimed at isolating and stifling [Pyongyang]. Sanctions mean a war, and the war knows no mercy. The U.S. should opt for dialogue."
North Korea has a 1-million-member army with the ability to seriously damage the South Korean capital, Seoul, with conventional arms.
North Korea says the United States reneged on a 1994 agreement to supply fuel oil and build safe light-water nuclear reactors to provide electricity to the impoverished country in exchange for Pyongyang's freezing its nuclear program. The reactors are years behind schedule, and the United States and its allies ordered that deliveries of fuel oil be suspended this fall after North Korea acknowledged having a secret program to enrich uranium. North Korea wants to negotiate directly with the United States.
South Korean media reported over the weekend that the government might urge the U.S. to guarantee North Korea's security and resume fuel oil shipments in exchange for a renewed freeze by Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons programs.
"We will continue to consult and cooperate closely with South Korea. We view this as an issue that we need to work together on and work shoulder to shoulder on," Fleischer said. "South Korea's offers are always appreciated."
But the Bush administration is demanding that North Korea scrap its nuclear weapons program before discussions take place.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, however, that there still are channels North Korea can use to communicate with the United States if it chooses to do so.
Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly met Monday with South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae Shik and with Mitoji Yabunaka, the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Bureau of Asian and Oceanian affairs. Talks are to continue today.
South Korea also has asked Russia to press North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program, and Moscow has agreed to increase its contacts with the government in Pyongyang. On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov called for "quiet diplomacy" to ease the tensions.
The IAEA's ElBaradei stressed that North Korea must allow U.N. inspectors to return and surveillance and containment equipment to be reinstalled at its nuclear facilities and must take other measures before a dialogue about its concerns can take place.
He said North Korea must give up nuclear weapons programs in a way that can be verified.
"The international community is unwilling to negotiate under blackmail," ElBaradei said. "You come into compliance, and then all the doors will be open."
In October, North Korea acknowledged to the United States that it was operating the secret nuclear weapons program. It then reactivated its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which had been closed under the 1994 agreement. The plant could be used to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods.
The Bush administration has sought to draw distinctions between North Korea and Iraq, stressing that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is not trying like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to dominate neighboring countries.
Critics of the administration argue that the North Korean crisis is more pressing than the dispute with Iraq. ElBaradei declined to be drawn into the debate.
"I don't think I'd like to speculate on who is more dangerous," he said.
"Clearly, North Korea has a nuclear capacity," he continued. "They have a processing plant. They have a reported enrichment program.... They have an advanced capability, probably more than Iraq, because in 1998 we managed to neutralize Iraq's program....
"We are still investigating in Iraq what happened between 1998 and 2002, and it is difficult for me to say at this stage what is Iraq's capability," ElBaradei said.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and Sonya Yee of The Times' Vienna Bureau contributed to this report.