At an emergency meeting in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board approved a resolution finding Pyongyang in violation of international nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said North Korean officials' "chronic non-compliance" with nuclear safeguards had "backed the agency into a corner," compelling it to report the matter to the security council.
The council has the power to take punitive actions, such as imposing economic sanctions, against the reclusive communist nation. Officials in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang have said any U.N. sanctions were tantamount to a declaration of war, but did not immediately responded to the IAEA decision.
The IAEA chief expressed frustration that his agency's "numerous and repeated efforts to engage the DPRK [North Korea] have been in vain," adding that Pyongyang's chronic "intransigence" set a "dangerous precedent."
ElBaradei said the IAEA needed to apply a "zero-tolerance" policy with all nations that defy nuclear safeguards to preserve the integrity of U.N. nonproliferation agreements.
Despite such strong statements, ElBaradei said he did not expect the Security Council to seek economic sanctions or a military action against North Korea, stressing that the IAEA and the U.N. had a "desire for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue" and supported a "diplomatic means to that end."
"It was the unanimous view of all the board members that we're looking for a peaceful resolution," ElBaradei told reporters.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer praised the IAEA's resolution as "a step in the right direction," saying it was a "clear indication that the international community will not accept North Korea's nuclear program."
Fleischer reiterated the Bush administration's call for a "multilateral" solution to the crisis "through diplomacy."
The move comes as senior intelligence officials, including CIA Director George Tenet, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea possessed an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States.
Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said North Korea's long-range missile, a three-stage version of the Taepo Dong 2 missile, has never been tested, raising doubts over North Korea's ability to successfully launch it.
Following the Senate briefing, intelligence officials said Tenet and Jacoby's statements were not based on new intelligence about this missile, which the U.S. learned about in 2001, the Associated Press reported. According to those officials, the U.S. had no evidence that North Korea launched any new missiles within the last year.
Fleischer also downplayed the information as old intelligence, saying "[t]his old news is why it's important to proceed with deployment of missile defense and also why the president is focused on multi-lateral diplomatic talks to deal with North Korea."