Japan's Foreign Ministry says Tokyo has hardened its stance regarding North Korea's refusal to return to six-way talks about its nuclear weapons programs. South Korean officials were more cautious in comments following a meeting between the two nations' foreign ministers to discuss the matter.
The Japanese foreign minister on Friday turned up the heat on North Korea, which has refused to return to negotiations on ending its nuclear programs.
Japan says it may consider referring the matter to the United Nations Security Council for action and possible sanctions against Pyongyang.
North Korea has previously said it would consider sanctions as a declaration of war.
Previously, Japan, like neighbor South Korea, had been reluctant to consider such actions, which could antagonize Pyongyang, while diplomats were working to get the communist nation back to the bargaining table.
On the sidelines of an Asian-European meeting in Kyoto, the Japanese foreign minister, Nobutaka Machimura, and his South Korean counterpart, Ban Ki-moon, discussed whether the time might be drawing near for tougher action.
Hatsuhisa Takashima is a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
"They didn't mention in exact name Security Council or such, but, of course, surely they have Security Council in their minds, as well as five-party talks, six minus North Korea," he said.
However, Mr. Machimura told reporters later that, if there is no progress on the talks, going to the Security Council must be considered.
Asked if this more aggressive stance toward the North Korean nuclear crisis can be interpreted as Japan hardening its stance, the spokesman, Mr. Takashima, replied, "yes," an unusually blunt assessment from a Japanese official.
The South Korean government, however, is more cautious. In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Sung-chul says his government would prefer to avoid that action.
"We still are hoping for the reopening of the six-party talks, other options will have to be looked at, but that is after exhausting all the possible ways of re-holding the meeting," he added.
The two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China last met to discuss the matter 11 months ago. The United States has already indicated its support for referring the matter to the Security Council, if Pyongyang refuses to resume the talks.
North Korea says it has nuclear weapons and is making more. Washington and the other partners in the talks say the North's nuclear programs violate its past agreements.
Japan is warning North Korea not to conduct any nuclear detonations, amid reports both here and abroad that Pyongyang appears to be preparing for its first nuclear test.
Mr. Takashima says a test would not only be a major setback for efforts to solve the nuclear crisis, but it would also pose a major regional security concern.
"We would like to tell North Korea that the best way for them and the most beneficial way for them to settle this is not to escalate this kind of threat to the security environment, but to settle it with the peaceful means, through dialogue," he explained.
Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons to deter a possible attack by the United States, although Washington has said repeatedly it does not intend to invade North Korea. The United States and the other partners in the talks have held out the promise of economic aid and security guarantees, if the North dismantles its nuclear programs.