UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council refused Wednesday to act on a U.S. request to condemn North Korea for pulling out of a treaty to curb nuclear weapons because of strong opposition from China and Russia.
But U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte called the council's expression of concern "an acceptable outcome." He expressed hope that North Korea "will not reject diplomatic efforts to address its nuclear program" and warned Pyongyang against any "further escalatory steps."
At the heart of the dispute is North Korea's insistence on direct talks with the United States, which it views as a threat to its security.
The Bush administration, which has called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq, insists that the problem be addressed in a multilateral forum, including countries threatened by Pyongyang's nuclear program.
China, Russia, the European Union and Secretary-General Kofi Annan have tried to get North Korea and the United States to the negotiating table. U.N. envoy Maurice Strong, who just returned from Pyongyang, said Tuesday both sides now agree to hold direct and multilateral talks, but haven't agreed on the format.
North Korea has warned that any Security Council action would undermine peace efforts and it has reiterated several times that it would regard U.N. sanctions as a declaration of war.
With such high stakes, council members chose to take no action, hoping to instead find an acceptable framework for talks.
"Members of the council expressed their concern" about the nuclear issue, said council president Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico's U.N. ambassador.
"The council will continue to follow up developments of this matter. There is nothing else to add to this."
China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the Security Council had no business discussing North Korea's nuclear program.
Leaving Wednesday's meeting, China's U.N. Ambassador, Wang Yingfan, said, "I think it was a good discussion. All the efforts are being done, and will continue, to promote political dialogue -- that's what I stressed."
"The only way the problem is going to be solved is direct bilateral dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, and whatever multilateral formats are used should be in addition to this," said Russia's U.N. Ambassador, Sergey Lavrov.
The standoff began in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program. North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon called the report "a rumor."
Washington suspended fuel shipments that were part of a 1994 agreement with the United States that froze North Korea's nuclear program. The North retaliated by expelling U.N. nuclear monitors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as of Thursday.
It then took steps to restart its frozen nuclear program, saying it would be limited, for the moment, to peaceful purposes such as electricity production.
The International Atomic Energy Agency referred the issue of North Korea's withdrawal to the council in February.
Even though the council did not agree on a statement of condemnation, Negroponte said the outcome of Wednesday's meeting was "acceptable."
"Diplomatic contacts ... are taking place bilaterally, multilaterally, between all the countries in the region around the Korean peninsula -- China, Japan, South Korea and so forth," he said.
According to Japan's Kyodo news agency, the United States and North Korea held working-level talks over three days last week.
U.N. envoy Maurice Strong, who just returned from Pyongyang, said Tuesday there has been "sufficient progress" to bridge the gap, with both sides now agreeing that there should be direct and multilateral talks. There is now no reason to delay talks, but there is no agreement yet on the format, he said.
While Negroponte stressed that the United States seeks a peaceful solution, he said: "I don't think we rule out the possibility of action by the council in the future. We haven't taken any option off the table."
On Wednesday, North Korea warned Japan against raising tensions in the region, saying Japan was within range of the communist state's missiles.
"Japan should behave with discretion, clearly mindful that it is also within the striking range of the DPRK," said Pyongyang's official news agency KCNA, using the initials of North Korea's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.