The United States has "significant deterrent capability" to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Monday as the White House called a weekend missile test by Pyongyang "provocative."
Rice told reporters, after talks here with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, that "the United States maintains significant, I want to underline significant, deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region.
"So I don't think there should be any doubt about our ability to deter whatever the North Koreans are up to," she said.
The short-range missile launched off North Korea's east coast came a day before the opening of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in New York and as Pyongyang stepped up its war of words with the United States.
Sunday's missile test was "a continuation of a series of provocative acts by North Korea, and they only serve to further isolate North Korea," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
"There is a consensus among all parties in the region that the only viable path for North Korea is to return to the six-party talks and to abandon its nuclear weapons program," he said.
Rice said that missiles would "at some point" have to be a part of the discussion to scrap North Korea's nuclear program although she did not specify whether it should be included in multilateral talks, designed to end the hardline communist state's nuclear weapons buildup.
Her reminder of US military might Monday came amid increasing signals that American patience is wearing thin over North Korea's refusal to return to six-party talks hosted by China.
North Korea has been boasting about its nuclear capability in recent months and said it had built "the nuclear deterrent force" to "effectively cope with the arrogant, outrageous and brigandish method of the US."
Rice discussed the Korean nuclear crisis with her Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, on Monday as part of their first round of a "strategic dialogue" and both urged China to play a more active role in reining in North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Machimura said.
"Certainly the Chinese have made a lot of efforts recently, and we recognize and appreciate that," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "But the fact is, North Korea hasn't come back."
Rice and Machimura also discussed the possibility of referring the Korean nuclear crisis to the United Nations Security Council.
"We touched upon that at this meeting, as well, as one of the options on the table, but the primary thing is to realise the six-party talks as soon as possible. But everything else is on the table, as well," Machimura said.
Rice emphasized "the ability of the United States to deter, both on behalf of itself and on behalf of its allies, North Korean nuclear ambitions or gains on the (Korean) peninsula."
The United States has a pact with its allies Japan and South Korea to defend them if they come under threat from North Korea, and it has military facilities and troops stationed in the two countries.
China has hosted three rounds of the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, Russia, the United States and Japan, but North Korea failed to show up for a fourth round set for September 2004.
At the talks, the United States has supported multilateral security guarantees for North Korea if it verifiably and irreversibly scraps its weapons program.
US intelligence officials believe North Korea has had a nuclear weapons capability since the early 1990s and may have added to its arsenal since it expelled UN nuclear inspectors and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.
The director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency said last week North Korea is believed to be capable of arming a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead and could deploy a two-stage intercontinental missile that could hit US territory.
"That's all the more reason why we need to take steps under the assumption that they can, because of the regime that is in power there," White House spokesman McClellan said Monday, underlining President Bush's initiative for a missile defense system.
"That's one important deterrent that we continue to pursue," he said.
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