NEW DELHI, March 16 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted Tuesday that North Korea's "isolation from its neighbors has deepened" as it has bolstered its nuclear stockpile in the past year, even as South Korea and China continue to maintain close economic links to the North.
Speaking to reporters as she traveled to India for the first leg of a week-long Asian tour, Rice also brushed aside North Korea's pronouncement Tuesday that it might increase its nuclear arsenal to maintain a balance of power in East Asia and help prevent a U.S. attack. Rice reiterated the administration's position that it had "no intention" of attacking or invading North Korea.
She said the Bush administration understood that South Korea needed to seek good relations with its neighbor, but she said "the relationship is not moving as rapidly as it once was" because the North continues to develop weapons.
Rice, who praised nuclear rivals India and Pakistan for reducing tensions in recent years, met with senior Indian leaders Wednesday and was to fly to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, later in the day for talks there. She will also make her first visit to Afghanistan before flying to East Asia on Friday for discussions about the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Rice said she had explored the possible sale of F-16 fighter jets to India during talks there; Pakistani media have said she would do the same in Islamabad. The sales would represent a shift in policy to a more pragmatic approach to security relations with India and Pakistan. But officials traveling with Rice said she did not plan to announce any agreement.
The United States has close economic and political ties with both nations, but it reacted with alarm in 1998 when India tested nuclear weapons and Pakistan immediately followed. The Clinton administration responded by imposing economic sanctions on both countries.
Rice, who frequently cites President Bush's campaign for greater democracy abroad, declined to criticize Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, for backing out of a promise to give up his post as army chief of staff. Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has allowed a limited return to democratic institutions but retains ultimate power.
She said Musharraf had "tried very hard to rid Pakistan of the kind of extremism that frankly, three or four years ago threatened to make Pakistan a state that was a supporter of terrorism." Musharraf broke a longstanding policy backing the Afghan Taliban regime in late 2001 and has cooperated closely with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts since then.
Rice praised Musharraf for his efforts to promote economic reform but said: "We expect a commitment to a democratic path for Pakistan."
On East Asia, Rice said the "unity of message and purpose" of the five nations negotiating with North Korea "have been very clear, the Chinese most especially."
But U.S. officials say they are disappointed that China has not done more to prod North Korea to return to the talks. Chinese and South Korean officials, meanwhile, have publicly pressed the Bush administration to show more flexibility in its proposal to dismantle North Korea's weapons program.
In fact, North Korea's economic ties have flourished with China and South Korea since the Bush administration confronted the North over a clandestine nuclear program in 2002. In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the European Union also has opened an extension of its Seoul-based chamber of commerce.
Nearly a year ago, Vice President Cheney visited the region and told an audience in Shanghai that "time is not necessarily on our side." He said North Korea could peddle nuclear technology to terrorist groups and warned that as North Korea's neighbors faced the reality that it had nuclear weapons, "we may have a nuclear arms race unleashed in Asia."
Experts estimate that North Korea's nuclear reactor could have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for another nuclear weapon since Cheney issued his warning.