Seoul, South Korea High-ranking U.S. officials last month considered attacking North Korea before agreeing to seek a peaceful solution to the standoff over nuclear weapons, South Korea's president-elect said Saturday.
Roh Moo-hyun, speaking on television, said there were top-level U.S. discussions about a possible invasion, but Washington officials Saturday were quick to say they had no knowledge such talks took place.
Washington for weeks has stressed diplomacy in resolving the conflict, and Roh's comments came one day after the United States said it would be willing to give North Korea a written guarantee it would not attack.
Still, the remarks by Roh, who was elected Dec. 19, shed light on an alleged debate within the U.S. government over how to deal with the communist North after it declared it would reactivate old nuclear facilities capable of making bombs.
"At the time of the elections, some U.S. officials, who held considerable responsibility in the administration, talked about the possibility of attacking North Korea," Roh told a panel of university professors on KBN-TV.
He described the U.S. officials as "hardline" and did not say how he knew about the discussion. But Roh is close to outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, whose government has been coordinating a joint strategy on the North with the United States.
The White House and Pentagon deferred comment to the State Department, where a spokesman, who requested anonymity, said he was not aware of any such discussion about military action against North Korea.
He and the White House reiterated that President Bush wanted a peaceful solution.
"The president has made it clear the U.S. has no intention of invading North Korea, and he has indicated he wants to find a peaceful resolution to the current situation North Korea has brought upon itself," White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said.
The dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program began in October, when the United States said North Korea had admitted to developing nuclear weapons in violation of a previous agreement. In response, Washington suspended fuel oil shipments guaranteed under the 1994 pact.
North Korea in turn expelled U.N. inspectors, opened nuclear facilities and last week withdrew from a global anti-nuclear pact. It has threatened to drop a moratorium on missile tests and reopen a lab that could be used to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods, a step toward making nuclear arms.
Intensifying the pressure for a diplomatic solution, a Russian envoy in Pyongyang met North Korean officials Saturday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov has been pushing a so-called "package plan" calling for security guarantees and resumption of economic aid to North Korea in return for a commitment to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.
North Korean officials told the Russian envoy that the nuclear dispute should not be "internationalized" because it was strictly a U.S.-North Korean matter, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing KCNA.
"Recent actions were taken to protect the highest interests of our country," Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju said at a banquet for Losyukov, apparently referring to Pyongyang's decision to expel inspectors and prepare to reactivate its nuclear facilities.
The isolated North has asked the United States for a nonaggression treaty in exchange for its disarmament. A senior U.S. official emphasized Friday that Congress would never agree to such a pact, given that North Korea reneged on the 1994 agreement to give up its nuclear weapons program.
But Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the United States would be willing to exchange letters, documents or some form of written guarantees with the North -- short of an actual treaty but still a step forward in U.S. offers to negotiate.
He also stressed that Washington had no desire to meddle in North Korea's domestic politics.
"The president has no hostile intentions and no plans to invade. That's an indication that North Korea can have the regime that they want to have," he told Japanese reporters in Washington.
South Korea has tried to capitalize on its ties with Pyongyang to help mediate a solution, but its efforts have been muddied by a scandal that Seoul gave alleged payoffs to the North.
Seoul's government opposition has leveled accusations that the outgoing president secretly funneled $341 million to North Korea before his historic 2000 summit with that nation's leader, Kim Jong Il.
If true, the payment could be seen as helping seal the meeting, which helped earn Kim a Nobel Peace Prize for his overtures to the North.
Allegations first raised last fall flared again Friday when Roh said prosecutors should investigate the matter. Roh, from Kim's ruling Millennium Democratic Party, takes office next month.
On Saturday, Roh told the televised panel about the pressure he face during his election campaign over the possibility of a U.S. attack on the isolationist North.
"I couldn't even say in public what would happen if the United States attacked North Korea because that would make the people afraid," he said.
"I then felt that no matter what differences I might face with the United States, I would oppose an attack on North Korea," Roh said. "Fortunately, opinion in the United States started to change to resolving the matter peacefully."