Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said Thursday that North Korea (search) should return to disarmament talks and avoid a path toward further international isolation. "The world has given them a way out and we hope they will take that way out," she said.

Rice's comments came after North Korea stated explicitly that it has nuclear weapons and said that it needs them as protection against an increasingly hostile United States.

"The North Koreans have been told by the president of the United States that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea," Rice said during a news conference here with European Union leaders.

"There is a path for the North Koreans that would put them in a more reasonable relationship with the rest of the world," she said, referring to an international disarmament effort that includes the United States.

Giving up nuclear weapons would offer hope for a better life to that country's people, Rice said. North Korea is desperately poor, and people are fleeing the country to avoid starvation.

The North Korean statement may be a bluff meant to put the United States back on its heels before the regime finally does return to the disarmament table. North Korea told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation last month that it would return to those six-nation talks.

Asked to analyze the thinking in Pyongyang, Rice was almost dismissive.

"I'm not sure anyone ever gets very far by trying to second-guess the motivation of the North Korean regime," she said.

Rice said the United States isn't treating North Korea differently from Iran, another nation in President Bush's famous rhetorical axis of evil (search).

"The message is clear: give up these aspirations for nuclear weapons and you know life can be different," Rice said. She also said that is the same message that Libya understood in renouncing its own nuclear ambitions.

Unlike Iran, North Korea had not been a frequent topic during Rice's breakneck tour of eight European countries and Israel over the past week. She also visited the West Bank and the Vatican.

Rice used the trip to reach out to Europe, and Europe reached back.

It is too soon to measure success, but Rice seemed pleased as she neared the end of the breakneck tour.

The trip, Rice's first as the top U.S. diplomat, engaged European leaders, intellectuals and curious citizens. Interest in her itinerary grew steadily as she made a case for a fresh start after rancor over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Iran's nuclear development program was a topic for most of Rice's meetings with European politicians.

"It's been a really great conversation," she said Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium. "I feel very good about what we've done here and the conversation that we've had."

Rice's trip was concluding Thursday in Luxembourg, which currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, with meetings to lay groundwork for the Feb. 22 EU-U.S. summit in Brussels with Bush.

The 2003 Iraq war divided the United States and longtime allies, and U.S. policies there continue to be widely unpopular even among Europeans whose governments, such as Italy and Poland, sent significant numbers of troops to Iraq.

"The times are different now than they were a year ago or two years ago when we did have our differences, not with everyone, but with a number of states," Rice said in Belgium. "While we still had common interests and common values I don't think we had a common agenda for a while on what was really before us, at least in regards to Iraq."

The success of elections in Iraq last month, however, gives the United States and its allies common purpose, Rice said.

Several countries committed to help train Iraqi forces and participate in an upcoming NATO training mission after lunch with Rice and NATO Secretary-General Japp de Hoop Scheffer.

"I have to say that it is the best discussion of Iraq that we have had as an alliance since the Saddam Hussein regime fell, and, in fact, well before that, because it was clearly a unified alliance," Rice said.

Rice's tour included France and Germany, two of the United States' strongest critics on Iraq, and two of six nations that have refused to participate in a postwar NATO force there. She also visited Britain, Italy and Poland, all allies in Iraq, and Turkey on the European portion of her trip.