BEIJING, March 21 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that she had raised the prospect with Asian allies over the weekend of imposing economic or political penalties against North Korea if its government persisted in refusing to return to six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.
In remarks at the conclusion of her week-long tour of Asia, Rice said she had discussed using "other options in the international system" against North Korea, the first time a senior U.S. official has publicly acknowledged the possibility of shifting to an aggressive campaign to isolate North Korea if the talks remain dormant. U.S. officials said the options could include tighter strictures on North Korea's illicit trade in arms and drugs and referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
Rice, who returned to Washington late Monday, stressed that most of her conversations in Japan, South Korea and China over the weekend were focused on generating ideas on how to persuade the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to return to the negotiating table. A key goal of her trip was to press China, North Korea's main economic benefactor, to use its considerable leverage to force a return to the talks. Russia is also a participant in the negotiations.
North Korea announced on Feb. 10 that it possessed nuclear weapons and was pulling out of the talks because of the Bush administration's "hostile policy." On Monday, North Korean state media said the country had increased its nuclear arsenal to help prevent a U.S. attack, according to South Korea's semi-official Yonhap news agency.
The goal, Rice said, was to "not just get North Korea back to the table, but get North Korea back to the table ready to be constructive." If North Korea continues to balk, "then we will have to find other means to do it," she said. In an apparent reference to the United Nations, she noted that there were "other options in the international system."
[China announced early Tuesday that North Korea's premier, Pak Pong Ju, would visit Beijing beginning Tuesday in what was believed to be another Chinese attempt to arrange a resumption of the six-party talks. The official People's Daily said Pak would stay in China five days.]
U.S. officials traveling with Rice said the Chinese government had not been clear about its dealings with North Korea, making it difficult to determine whether China was actually delivering a tough message. But one official said Chinese officials appeared genuinely alarmed by North Korea's behavior.
Rice's decision to publicly acknowledge discussing other options with her Asian counterparts appeared aimed in part at prodding the Chinese to move quickly. On Sunday, before she flew to Beijing, Rice suggested that time was running out for a North Korean response. "We need to resolve this issue," she told reporters in Seoul. "It cannot go on forever."
U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe North Korea now possesses enough plutonium for at least eight nuclear weapons. The crisis over North Korea's atomic ambitions began in October 2002, when the Bush administration accused the government of having a program to enrich uranium in violation of a 1994 agreement freezing North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
Rice carefully balanced her comments on the subject throughout the weekend. In a speech she gave in Japan, she offered conciliatory language, calling North Korea a "sovereign state" and stressing that the United States had made an offer to resolve the dispute last June.
Under that proposal, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to North Korea if it agreed to terminate its nuclear programs. The government in Pyongyang would have three months to disclose its programs and have its claims verified. The United States would then join its allies in giving written security assurances and participate in a process that might ultimately result in direct U.S. aid.
"The North Korean government can find the respect it desires and acquire the assistance it needs, if it is willing to make a strategic choice for peace," Rice told an audience at Tokyo's Sophia University.
A senior official traveling with Rice said her remarks were designed to afford the Chinese evidence they could present to the North Koreans showing the administration's flexibility and sincerity.
But in what North Korea might consider a bellicose act, she also flew to South Korea and toured Command Post Tango, a bunker built into a mountain that would serve as the command center during a war with North Korea. In a room dominated by a video wall that displays maps and military intelligence, she hailed U.S. and South Korean troops working there as being on the "front lines of freedom."
There are nearly 33,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Rice's visit occurred as thousands of American and South Korean troops participated in a one of their twice-yearly joint military exercises, which are regularly condemned by Pyongyang.
Rice's efforts to forge a common approach among the three nations she visited this weekend were hampered by a bitter territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea over a small island chain. Japan in recent weeks has reasserted claim to the islands, which are occupied by South Korea, rekindling anger in Seoul over Tokyo's wartime colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun, appeared this month to belittle Japan's bilateral dispute with North Korea over the abduction of Japanese citizens by the Pyongyang government during the 1970s and 1980s -- an issue Tokyo says must be resolved before it would be willing to offer economic incentives to North Korea.
Correspondents Anthony Faiola in Seoul and Edward Cody in Beijing contributed to this report.