North Korea still has a long way to go to get off the Bush administration's list of nuclear threats, says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In light of new diplomatic and cultural outreach to North Korea, and what seemed to be a warming in relations, Rice was asked Wednesday whether the United States still considers the reclusive nation part of President Bush's "axis of evil."
"They are clearly still states about which there are significant proliferation concerns," Rice said during an Associated Press interview at her State Department office. "It would be very irresponsible not to deal with those dangers."
Rice was cautious on the topic, speaking a day after the New York Philharmonic announced it would play a concert in Pyongyang, and the week after word of a personal letter from Mr. Bush to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"This is not a regime that the United States is prepared to engage broadly" until the North has scrapped its nuclear weapons program, Rice said. "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."
The closed, secretive regime exploded a nuclear device last year but agreed months later to accept a package of economic and energy incentives if it gave up its weapons.
North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor and has begun to put it out of commission, and U.S. officials have said the work is going well. It is supposed to be complete by year's end.
Rice said neither the orchestra's upcoming trip, which the State Department helped arrange, nor Mr. Bush's letter should indicate an easing in the administration's resolve to confront North Korea.
"What matters first and foremost is that we deal with the nuclear weapons programs, all of them, of the North Koreans," Rice said. "It remains a country that is dangerously armed and a considerable threat on both the proliferation front and its own program."
The letter delivered this month offered the possibility for better relations with the United States if North Korea lives up to the deal it made and underscored U.S. expectations. While unremarkable in content, the letter was an unprecedented symbolic gesture to a leader President Bush has ridiculed and ostracized.
Rice called it simply part of the "active diplomacy" now under way to resolve the nuclear questions.
Meanwhile, South Korea's top nuclear envoy met with his Chinese counterpart Thursday to discuss progress on disarming the North, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said.
South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo met with Wu Dawei, the Chinese nuclear negotiator, to talk about how to implement a landmark aid-for-disarmament deal on ridding the North of its nuclear programs, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing.
"The two sides exchanged views on the current situation of the six party talks and the next stage of work," he said, adding the talks have made "positive progress."
Chun's visit comes amid a looming year-end deadline for the North to declare all its nuclear programs and disable its facilities in return for energy aid and diplomatic concessions.
Qin said the disablement work is "smoothly under way" but wouldn't comment on whether it would be completed by the deadline.
Rice, herself a classically trained pianist, also told the AP she was pleased that at least some North Koreans would be able to get a glimpse of the outside world when the philharmonic performs in the North Korean capital on Feb. 26.
"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."