The Clinton administration yesterday disowned statements by Jimmy Carter in North Korea, saying the former president evidently had misstated U.S. policy despite earlier consultations between Carter and officials in Washington.

In an embarrassing split, administration officials said they could not explain why Carter said in North Korea the United States had dropped its recent proposal for sanctions against the country, a day after President Clinton had said the diplomatic drive for sanctions would continue.

"We have no way of knowing why he thought what he thought, or why he said what he said," a senior official said.

Senior U.S. officials also said Carter apparently had misled the North Koreans by telling them Clinton had already agreed to hold new high-level diplomatic talks over the isolated country's nuclear program.

Clinton, Vice President Gore, national security adviser Anthony Lake and Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci each went to considerable lengths yesterday to say Washington is still pursuing its sanctions drive even as it explores new prospects for dialogue with the hard-line communist state.

Clinton, asked during a trip to Chicago about the seemingly mixed signals sent by Carter and Washington, said, "We worked all day long {Thursday} on a very clearly and carefully worded statement so that our position could not be misunderstood by {the North Koreans} or anyone else, and it is the same position today."

Clinton left open the possibility Carter's statement about sanctions -- in a brief appearance carried by CNN -- could have been misinterpreted.

In the presence of a television crew, Carter said to North Korean President Kim Il Sung, "I would like to inform you that they {in the United States} have stopped the sanctions activity in the United Nations," which Washington had begun only on Tuesday. CNN reported Carter told Kim he was passing on that message after consultations with the White House.

Clinton noted, "There was no question and answer, there was no clarification." Other officials said they had not had a chance to talk with Carter yesterday to check the remarks. But, for the second day in a row, U.S. officials privately expressed anguish over Carter's public remarks during his visit as a private citizen to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang at the invitation of the government there. "We would not have scripted it this way," a U.S. official said.

{South Korean President Kim Young Sam accepted an invitation, delivered by Carter, to meet with Kim Il Sung, Reuter reported early today from Seoul. According to an aide to the South Korean leader, Kim Il Sung told Carter he hoped to meet the southern Kim "at any time and any place."}

While publicly welcoming an unexpected North Korean concession to Carter on Thursday -- in which North Korea promised not to eject international inspectors from a sensitive nuclear site -- the officials had been privately scathing that the former Democratic president would so embarrass his successor by challenging his policy at a highly sensitive moment.

The official said that on Thursday Lake and Gallucci had each read to Carter over the telephone the text of an official statement worked out by the administration in response to the North Korean concession. The statement said Washington was "continuing to consult on our sanctions resolution at the {U.N.} Security Council."

Officials said during Lake's telephone call with Carter on Thursday evening {Washington time}, Carter had made clear he was not happy with that policy. U.S. officials said both men knew the conversation was subject to North Korean eavesdropping.

Carter "wanted to see more give in our position," the official said. But Lake "made clear to him" in the 20-minute conversation that the position was firm.

"Carter is hearing what he wants to hear, both from Kim Il Sung and from the administration. He is creating his own reality," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition he remain unidentified.

Asked if the scrambled signals could undermine U.S. policy or reflect poorly on Clinton's handling of the dispute with North Korea, another senior official said caustically that "the implications are for Carter and what does it say about Jimmy Carter, not what does it say about Bill Clinton."

In light of continuing tensions over North Korea, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili yesterday briefed members of Congress on U.S. and South Korean military preparations. They hoped to calm concerns on Capitol Hill about the military readiness to respond to North Korean actions. Senators and representatives emerged generally satisfied about the steps so far but somewhat divided over the extent to which the Clinton administration should move now to reinforce American troops in Korea.

"Some members are pressing for more decisive action," said a congressional source who attended the briefing. "But others contend we must be careful not to take military measures that would eliminate our diplomatic maneuvering room."

In weighing how quickly and how much to bolster American forces in Korea, administration officials worry about provoking a North Korean reaction but also worry about not doing enough to guard against attack if sanctions are eventually voted.

After weeks of intensive planning, the Pentagon has drafted several options for building up U.S. military assets in the region, ranging from a minimum of sending support personnel to a maximum of dispatching squadrons of fighters and bombers as well as an additional aircraft carrier to supplement the one normally based in Japan.

Carter, who has regularly stepped in to try to help resolve diplomatic disputes since his defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections, told acquaintances before his departure for North Korea that he wanted to try to head off what he feared could be an unwarranted slide toward devastating conflict there.

The dispute stems from a clash between the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N.-affiliated nuclear proliferation watchdog, and North Korea over promised inspections of the country's suspected nuclear weapons program. The dispute became more serious earlier this month, when North Korea defied IAEA demands to conduct tests critical to assessing whether North Korea in the past had sought to build nuclear weapons.

When Carter first informed Washington of his desire to accept the North Korean invitation, officials were divided about whether to try to talk him out of it. The White House decided not to intervene, and Clinton and other U.S. officials spoke with Carter before his departure.

Gallucci said Carter would be questioned by U.S. officials this weekend, after leaving North Korea, and that Washington would then attempt to confirm his account of North Korea's position through routine diplomatic channels next week as a prelude to possible high-level talks.

Only if North Korea meets a series of U.S. conditions will the talks go forward, and the U.S. sanctions effort be suspended, Gallucci said.

While negotiations have been underway for the past 16 months,, the United States took relatively limited military measures aimed essentially at improving defensive capabilities. These include delivery to South Korea this spring of six Patriot anti-missile batteries, and an increase in intelligence personnel and equipment in -- and over -- Korea.

A number of other significant improvements in the firepower and mobility of U.S. forces have occurred in recent months as part of a new war plan adopted several years ago before tensions began to rise. These have included dispatch of Apache attack helicopters, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and counter-battery radar.

But, in contrast to the buildup that marked the faceoff between the Bush administration and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990, the Clinton administration has taken pains to keep its latest reinforcement efforts as low-key as possible. Four years ago, the United States was hoping to scare Saddam into pulling his forces out of Kuwait rather than risk war. This time, U.S. officials are afraid of scaring a paranoid North Korean leadership into invading the South.

"We have to be careful that we don't propel ourselves into a war we're trying to prevent," Adm. Charles R. Larson, commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told a naval conference in Newport, R.I., this week.

Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report from Chicago.