Washington should not risk "too much" in its efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions, South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has said.
Mr Powell wants China to use its influence with Pyongyang
Mr Roh, who takes office on Tuesday, told Newsweek magazine that dialogue and economic assistance was the only way to end the four-month nuclear standoff.
The interview, published on Sunday, came as US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in China, where he will seek Beijing's support for the US stance on North Korea and Iraq.
Correspondents say China is unlikely to block US action in the Gulf, but that Mr Powell will get a much less receptive audience on the Korean issue.
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says China has repeatedly criticised Washington's hardline stance towards North Korea, which announced last year that it was reactivating a controversial nuclear reactor.
Mr Powell has called for North Korea's nuclear ambitions to be discussed at a forum made up of many countries, but China says the issue should be resolved in direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Mr Roh has strongly opposed Washington's stance of isolating North Korea.
"North Korea was opening up and is already changing," he told Newsweek magazine.
"If we give them what they desperately want - regime security, normal treatment and economic assistance - they will be willing to give up their nuclear ambitions.
Roh Moo-hyun favours engaging with North Korea
"We should not, therefore, treat them as criminals, but as partners in negotiations."
Mr Powell is on his first visit to the region since the North Korea crisis flared up, and will attend Mr Roh's inauguration on Tuesday.
Speaking in Tokyo after talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Mr Powell said the United Nations Security Council, together with North and South Korea, Japan, the European Union and Australia should all be involved in talks to resolve the nuclear standoff.
Mr Powell said the US had tried to deal with the issue by itself in 1994 and had failed to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle.
Mr Powell is due to meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Communist Party leader Hu Jintao and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on Monday, before heading to Seoul.
During his tour, Mr Powell is expected to announce details of a planned resumption of food aid North Korea, which is suffering massive shortages.
Food shipments were halted three months ago but, although it coincided with the nuclear stand-off, the US has said the two issues are unconnected.
Some critics have accused the US of using food as a political weapon - suggesting aid was withheld to put pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear programme.