SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Friday that President Bush signaled U.S. plans to attack its nuclear facilities when he said he did not rule out using military force against the North.
The North had no immediate comment, however, on Bush's remarks at a news conference Thursday in Washington that multilateral dialogue was the best way to deal with the communist nation's nuclear development. The North has warned that the nuclear issue can only be solved in direct U.S.-North Korean talks.
"Bush's remarks on 'military option' are little short of a signal to go into action against DPRK," said the North's state-run news agency, KCNA, using the initials for the for Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"It is an undisguised revelation of the U.S. intention to make a pre-emptive strike at the DPRK's nuclear facilities," KCNA said.
In an interview Monday with 14 U.S. newspapers, Bush noted that efforts were under way to persuade China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to work with Washington toward a diplomatic solution to the standoff over the isolated North's nuclear programs.
Asked how successful these efforts had been, Bush said: "It's in process. If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily. And military option is our last choice. Options are on the table, but I believe we can deal with this diplomatically. I truly do."
In a separate dispatch Friday, North Korea dismissed international concerns over its nuclear facilities and reiterated that its nuclear activities were for the production of electricity.
"As far as the DPRK's operation of its nuclear facilities is concerned, there is nothing to arouse the U.S. concern nor is there anything to cause the international community to worry about it," said Rodong Sinmun, the North's main newspaper.
Last month, U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea has reactivated a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon that produces raw materials usable for building atomic weapons. They are concerned the North might reactivate a reprocessing facility that would enable the production of nuclear weapons within months.
"We would see that as a very serious step up a ladder of escalation that poses great dangers to the world and does not serve North Korea's interests," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard said Friday at a luncheon in Seoul.
Hubbard said such a step would lead to further isolation for North Korea, rather than the economic aid and security assurances it seeks. He also dismissed North Korean claims that its reactor was for electricity, saying it barely generates enough power to operate itself.
Bush's prime-time news conference in the White House on Thursday was principally concerned with Iraq but took time to address the North Korean crisis.
"We've tried bilateral negotiations," Bush said, referring to an energy deal Washington signed with Pyongyang in 1994. "The United States honored its side of the agreement, North Korea didn't."
The nuclear dispute flared in October, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a covert nuclear program in violation of the 1994 deal. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments; the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting a nuclear reactor.
Also Friday, South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil urged Washington not to pull back U.S. troops from the North Korean border until the nuclear standoff is resolved.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld indicated Thursday that he wants to pull back U.S. troops stationed at the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Koreas.
Washington keeps 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea in a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, many of them based close to the frontier. Rumsfeld said soldiers could be shifted further south of the border, moved to other countries in the region or brought home.
In a statement, the South's defense ministry also expressed concern over North Korea's military maneuvers in recent weeks, including the interception of an American plane by North Korean fighter jets.
"We're deeply concerned that such tension-building activities by the KPA (Korean People's Army) undermine the efforts of our government and the international community to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue," the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The ministry urged North Korea's military to "act in a more prudent and responsible manner."
Four North Korean fighter jets intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace off the North's east coast on Sunday and one used its radar to identify the U.S. plane as a target, U.S. officials said. There was no hostile fire.
The South Korean ministry also said it was concerned by an incident last month in which a North Korean fighter jet briefly violated South Korean airspace.
U.S. and South Korean officials believe North Korea's military measures are designed to pressure Washington into talks.