SEOUL, South Korea -- Despite criticism of its efforts to engage North Korea, South Korea asserted Thursday that dialogue is the best way to deal with concerns about the communist state's nuclear weapons program.
The statement came after the United States said North Korea admitted it was in defiance of a 1994 pledge to disavow nuclear weapons and was developing a weapons program.
Other South Korean officials said North Korea's confession may be a sign that it wants to resolve the problem through negotiations rather than confrontation.
They planned to raise the issue in Cabinet-level talks this weekend with North Korea, which has yet to comment.
The admission left South Korea in a quandary. The two nations have worked with one another to improve their relationship, most recently undertaking the construction of cross-border roads and railways.
"Our basic position is that any problems with North Korea should be resolved through dialogue," said Han Sang-il, chief spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry.
But news of the weapons program could amplify criticism of President Kim Dae-jung, whose efforts to reach out to North Korea won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
South Korea's political opposition, whose leader, Lee Hoi-chang, is the front-runner ahead of a presidential vote Dec. 19, said a crisis was at hand.
He said the admission should lead to a review of Kim's "sunshine" policy of engagement.
"It's shocking and shatters the very foundation of U.S.-North Korean relations, as well as inter-Korean relations," said Nam Gyung-pil of the opposition Grand National Party.
Kim, who is not eligible for re-election, has been accused by political foes of pandering to North Korea, yielding economic and other perks and getting little in return.
For South Koreans who live within range of North Korean artillery, the news was another reminder of their vulnerability. South Koreans have viewed the threat of conflict with North Korea as routine ever since the 1950-53 Korean War. Most men serve as long as 26 months in the military, and anti-aircraft guns sit atop some high-rise buildings in the capital, Seoul.
U.S. and South Korean commanders are confident they can defeat North Korea in an armed conflict, but it is likely Seoul would be devastated by artillery barrage in the early hours of a conflict.