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Threats by North Korea will not intimidate the United States and its allies as they explore punitive economic sanctions against the Pyongyang government, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

North Korea has warned it would consider sanctions, which the Clinton administration is now aggressively seeking, an act of war. In heated talks with South Korea, the North once threatened that Seoul would become "a sea of fire," though the threat later was retracted.The United States began intensive consultations Friday with South Korea, Japan and Russia on how to retaliate for North Korea's removal of vital evidence about its nuclear weapons capability. The talks explored a range of options, from a full cutoff of trade to milder measures.

"We will not be intimidated by them," Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci said. "We don't think the international community will be intimidated by them."

And yet, emphasizing the situation was serious, Gallucci also told reporters, "There are a lot of lives at stake if this situation gets out of hand."

He began the consultations with Kim Sam Hoon, South Korea's special nuclear envoy, who in an exchange with reporters seemed resolute.

"We tried to resolve this through dialogue, but the North Korean response was not a positive one," Kim said. "We need a basis for the continuation of dialogue. We think the basis has been destroyed. We need to discuss alternative options."

President Clinton, in Rome, telephoned Russian President Boris Yeltsin and South Korean President Kim Young Sam, who was visiting Moscow. Yeltsin has proposed an international conference on the North Korean crisis.

The White House said Clinton told Yeltsin "such a meeting might be appropriate at some point while underscoring the need first to return the North Korean nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council."

"The two agreed to remain in close contact as the issue develops," the White House statement said.

The White House said Clinton and Kim "agreed that the next step is to pursue the issue of sanctions."

Gallucci, who coordinates U.S. nuclear policy, said he could "detect no differences between us and South Korea."

South Korea and Japan, as neighbors of communist North Korea, are uneasy about cracking down on the Pyongyang government.



Report alarms U.N.

The case for slapping sanctions against North Korea was bolstered Friday when the top U.N. atomic inspector said there was only one good way to determine how much plutonium the country may have to make bombs.

North Korea has already blocked U.N. inspectors from using the best method, examining 8,000 fuel rods in a nuclear power reactor, Hans Blix, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters at the United Nations. No alternate method would yield comparable results, he said.

U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright called Blix's report "alarming" and promised a "serious response from the Security Council."

The Clinton administration is aggressively seeking sanctions, though North Korea has warned it would consider sanctions an act of war.