The Bush administration is not ready to expand contacts with North Korea despite signs that U.S. ties with the reclusive communist nation are warming, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associated Press Wednesday. She also said Iran remains a major threat even without an active nuclear weapons programs.
The North, she said, "is not a regime that the United States is prepared to engage broadly" until its leadership has ended all aspects of its nuclear weapons program. "If we are going to engage it broadly, it's clear in the program that we have laid out how that would happen, after denuclearization."
"What matters first and foremost is that we deal with the nuclear weapons programs, all of them, of the North Koreans," she said. "It remains a country that is dangerously armed and a considerable threat on both the proliferation front and its own program."
As evidence of a possible thaw, President Bush wrote North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, on Dec. 1 and raised the potential for normalized relations if Kim were to fully disclose his nuclear programs by year's end — a turnabout considering the White House lumped the country with Iran and Iraq in an "axis of evil" after the Sept. 11 attacks. Also, the New York Philharmonic announced on Tuesday it would play a concert in the North Korean capital in February.
Rice said neither the performance, which her department encouraged, nor Bush's letter, which also went to other foreign leaders involved in the disarmament talks, should indicate the administration was less determined to confront the North over its nuclear program. Bush's letter, she said, was part of the "active diplomacy" on the issue.
Rice, a classically trained pianist, said she was pleased that some North Koreans could glimpse life beyond their borders when the U.S. musicians visit.
"I think it's a good thing that there are efforts to help North Korea open up to the world," she said. "I don't think that there are any people in the world who are more isolated than the North Koreans and it would be a very good thing if there could be some sunshine into that world."
Iran's nuclear weapons threat
On Iran and the recent U.S. assessment that concluded the country had halted its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, Rice said that National Intelligence Estimate should not give the world any reason to discount the threat, considering the Islamic government continues to try to perfect ways to make the ingredients for an atomic bomb.
"I don't think the NIE gives a benign rendering of Iran," she said. "I see it as still quite dangerous."
Rice brushed aside Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim that the review provides a new chance for rapprochement with the U.S.
Iran, she noted, must account for its past secret nuclear weapons activities and stop its uranium reprocessing and enrichment.
"They have embraced the NIE, I assume that they are embracing the entire thing and that means that they must have had a weapons program and that means that they have a lot to answer for," she said, making light of Ahmadinejad's apparent agreement with the estimate's conclusions.
Both North Korea and Iran "are clearly still states about which there are significant proliferation concerns and ... it would be very irresponsible not to deal with those dangers," Rice said.
Discussing Iraq, Rice said she assumed responsibility for the controversy over the State Department's use of private security contractors, notably Blackwater Worldwide. The company's guards are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in September while Blackwater was protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy.
She said she believed her staff and the Pentagon had developed adequate rules for contractors to prevent a repeat of that incident, which led the department's diplomatic security chief to resign.
"I am never going to say that nothing will happen, but prospectively, I think we have put together a good plan with the Defense Department, we've put together a good plan here inside of the department for more oversight, for stronger training and accountability measures," Rice said.
"I don't want to speak to this specific incident, because that's being investigated as a legal matter but, of course, anything that happens in this department, I am ultimately responsible."